+3 Review: The Free Association – Jacuzzi (Pleasance: 4-21 Aug: 23.00 : 1hr)

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 “Wild, witty and wickedly funny”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Nae Bad

I always approach live improv shows with a degree of trepidation: though a lot of the fun lies in its often wild unpredictability, it’s easy for a forced joke or sudden case of comedian’s block to sour an entire set. However, from the moment the Free Association players arrived on stage, I felt as if the audience was in very safe hands.

Basing scenes from improvised monologues by “special guests”, it’s a streamlined one-two punch of comedy flavours. The changeover from stand-up style presentation to off-the-wall improv is smooth, sharp and very crisp, handily overcoming the transitional inertia that would threaten less cohesive groups. From start to finish, it’s this veneer of professionalism that really brings the Free Association together; very seldom is improv so akin to a well-oiled machine.

But far from it to say the comedy is mechanical: I’d almost recommend a helmet to protect against the ideas bouncing off the walls. From Blue Peter themed suicide pacts to rad skateboarding private-school bait-and-switches (it somehow made sense at the time), you’d be hard pressed to try and follow the cognitive bead of sense for more than ten minutes – and this show is all the better for it. Despite a few jokes which fell flat or dampened the usually excellent energy, when the material’s good, it’s hysterical.

This unpredictability was aided by the novel way in which the Free Association goes about its work. They tout themselves as being “based on the American style of long-form improv but with [their] own unique spin”, and the latter is pointedly true. Jacuzzi often blurs the line between short form and long form improv, with overarching plots and characters weaving in and out of the utter chaos on stage at breakneck pace.

For a more amateur company, this may have been a tall order, but the talent driving this show can’t be denied. Despite the extreme difficulty in discerning a favourite from such a strong cast,  Comedy MVP inevitably must go to Alison Thea-Skot: I’ve never seen such a wide comedic range – it’s a hard job to make an audience really believe they’re watching a heavily-scottish football coach who’s forcibly making their players fat to win games  – again, plenty of sense at the time – but I’ll be damned if I didn’t expect a true-life biopic about it to be in the works by the time the set ended.

The Free Association is certainly deserving of its acclaim. Wild, witty and wickedly funny, “Jacuzzi” is a classic example of improv comedy done right.

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 17 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally (Pleasance Courtyard: until 28 Aug: 12.50: 1hr 10mins)

“A compelling story”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Walking out of the auditorium I knew I’d need a decent amount of time to gather my thoughts and be able write this review properly, but even 36 hours on my mind is just as confused as it was then. The reason for this is two-fold: Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally is the story of an affair told from the point of view of (and narrated in the first person by) a mobile phone. It’s a fantastic and original concept, but does take a bit of getting used to. Couple that with the fact the role of the narrator (the phone) switches between all five actors on stage at alarming speed and suddenly you find yourself struggling to keep up with who’s who and what’s what.

As a device I can absolutely see the merits of the decision to share the narration – at times it creates great dramatic tension with multiple voices reminiscent of a Greek chorus, while some of the physicality of the group narration is really powerful. However, I don’t think these effects are enough to counter the sense of it all being just a bit too artsy and unnecessarily complicated. For me it would make much more sense to have just one actor as the narrator throughout. Given the concept, I feel this production needs to let it resonate and allow the audience to grasp it properly before trying to add additional layers of complexity.

The same can be said of the styling and direction of the piece. Performed in a stark open space with a few movable white blocks, a huge hole in the middle of the stage and various other stylised props, it seems like the actors are constantly trying to work around or fit into the design, rather than have it support them. Sequences within cars and the tennis match in particular come across as the most forced and restrained. In saying that, some of the physical aspects of the direction (like the lifts) work really well – there just seems to be a jarring between all the different elements going on, adding to the sense of confusion.

Putting all that aside, the absolute star of this show is Kevin Armento’s script. It’s inventive, dramatic and adds wonderful detailing to make the phone really feel like a character with thoughts and emotions of its own – happiest when at home (in its owner’s pocket), and knowing when it needs to be hooked up to its drip (to charge the battery). The plot is well-developed, unfolding the story piece by piece, with tensions arising as each character learns more about what is (or what they believe to be) going on. The final quarter does get a little far-fetched for my liking, but the end manages to work itself out well enough.

As an ensemble piece of theatre, the acting from the cast is very good – the actors blend in and out of narrator and individual character roles, showing great depth and versatility. For me the stand-out performer is Sarah-Jane Casey, who displays great energy and emotional range as Red’s mother, and is captivating to watch throughout.

Overall this is a compelling story presented by a great cast who create some wonderful dramatic moments, I just feel like it needs to go back to the drawing board creatively and adopt a simpler approach.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 16 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: Rory O’Keeffe – Monoglot (Pleasance, Aug 16-29 : 16.45 : 1 hr)

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 “Monoglot? Perhaps. Monotonous? Certainly not.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Outstanding

Most comedy shows I attend sober don’t begin with a five minute monologue by the empty mic. But then again, Rory O’Keeffe is anything but conventional. Through a tightly packed hour, he mimes, gurns and grins his way through a wonderfully punny routine based on the vagaries of language.

O’Keeffe himself looks like he should be a comedian. His boyish charms and the energy of his movements reinforce his sheer youth, but the confidence and the jokes are of a far higher calibre than one might expect for such a young man. Each ridiculously cartoonish movement was comedically precise and utterly free of inhibition, which cannot be said for many of his compatriots. If nothing else, this show would get a star alone for the sheer fearlessness with which O’Keeffe seeks to make a happy fool of himself. Despite his considerable vocabulary, it appears “inhibition” is one he hasn’t learnt yet.

But, luckily for all of us, his jokes definitely keep up with his own frenetic pace. Make no mistake: this is a downright clever show. As someone who loathes seeing a punchline coming, I might as well have been blindfolded in the dark. From the broad launching point of “language”, O’Keeffe manages to wring out a surprising variety of jokes – and, when I attended, flexed some serious improv muscle when it came to hecklers. Some of the best gags of the show were created on the spot, and it’s a real hallmark of quality on O’Keeffe’s considerable wit.

However, sometimes even the most runaway wit must be reined. A very distinct section which rounded off the show, whilst extremely impressive, wended a little too long, as often did a few of the foreign language jokes. That is not to say that O’Keeffe doesn’t manage to make unknown tongues funny, and far from it – but despite his skill (at least, for a self-professed monoglot) it’s always trumped by his own inventive observations about our shared mother tongue.

As far as hidden gems go, Rory O’Keeffe is a comedy diamond. Tucked away behind labyrinthine Pleasance as he is, he’s worth more than price of admission and job of seeking him out. Monoglot? Perhaps. Monotonous? Certainly not.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 14 Aug)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: Teatro Delusio (Pleasance Courtyard: 5-29 Aug: 13.45: 1hr 15mins)

“Physical mask theatre at its finest”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

After last year’s sell-out smash Hotel Paradiso, I was excited to see what Familie Floz would come back with in 2016, and for the first 50 minutes at least, Teatro Delusio more than meets expectations. It’s physical mask theatre at its finest, with three actors playing well over 20 individual characters between them, each of whom are clearly defined, consistent and a joy to watch.

The setting is backstage at a theatre, where we see the stage crew attempt to set everything up (without killing themselves or each other in the process), and then assist various members of the orchestra, singers and ballet dancers onto stage, even though they may hate, love or just be plain bored with them.

There are tricks and treats aplenty, from simple slapstick moments of falling through ladders and playing with exploding lights, to sword fights and disappearing through trap doors. Familie Floz’s real strength, though, is their character work and dexterity of changes, from a grumpy stage manager to a diva singer, and my absolute favourite: a blind and deaf violinist who has no clue where he is. The changes are so slick you’d assume there were at least six performers constantly running around, while the physicality required to define each character was so perfect that simple gestures often had the audience howling with laughter.

Yet for all their great character work and ability to build a believable world on stage, I feel that Familie Floz perhaps tried to reach too far with this production, by introducing a few too many characters, and deliver a story that could easily have been at least 10 minutes shorter and not lost any of its power. About three quarters of the way through the performance, when ends could have been tied up and rounded off, still more new things happened, and the performance hit a new level of ridiculousness that I think lost me, and many of my fellow audience members. What began as a perfectly plausible, if a little stylised, day or two in the life of a Stage Manager seemed to turn into a dream sequence with stabbings, stage crew achieving their lifelong dream of filling in for wounded ballet dancers at the last minute and unexplained resurrections that pushed the suspension of disbelief a little too far.

A beautiful piece, but be prepared to get uncomfortable: those seats in the Pleasance Grand don’t give much wiggle room and by the end of this performance you’ll need it.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 5 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

King Lear (Pleasance: 1 – 5 March ’16)

MacLeod Stephen as Poor Tom (Edgar) & Will Fairhead as Lear. Photos: Louise Spence.

MacLeod Stephen as Poor Tom (Edgar) & Will Fairhead as Lear.
Photos: Louise Spence.

“Expressionist-noir”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

In this ‘Year of Lear’ the Edinburgh University Shakespeare Company is not afraid. It should be though, for the ‘True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King Lear and his three daughters’ is a terrifying play. The voracious, great, Samuel Johnson could not stomach its last scenes and for near on 200 years it had to put up with the rewrite to end all rewrites. This is the tragedy that puts the brave into bravo.

And, first off, there were standing cheers at the curtain call. Will Fairhead’s performance as the foolhardy, maddening, mad, Lear deserved them. MacLeod Stephen acted out of his skin and nearly out of Poor Tom’s loincloth. Goneril (Caroline Elms) and Regan (Agnes Kenig) did that nasty, alluring thing with crystal diction on high heels and Cordelia (Marina Windsor) would break any father’s heart. Oliver Huband put the bad boy into whoreson, if that’s possible, and Tom Stuchfield made the worthy Earl of Kent positively exciting. Dual death by dagger thrust – Cornwall’s (Jordan Roberts-Laverty) and of the servant who dares protest at the blinding of Gloucester – is admirably dealt and nothing, nothing, disguises the naked brutality of the action that follows the ‘hideous rashness’ of Lear’s decision to dismember his kingdom. Cue the ‘What is Britain?’ line, topical then as now.

Still, forget history, or politics come to that, which is a professional undertaking. Henry Conklin directs a student production that bleaches affection and colour in favour of cold and dreadful suffering. The air drums relentlessly. Grey / blue, white and black predominate in a setting that may as well be called expressionist-noir. Only the all-licensed Fool is allowed to stand out but where, oh where, is the motley coat? A cheeky alpine hat is not enough support, even for the accomplished and confident Pedro Leandro. The wit and the timing worked well enough in the moment, prompting chuckles, but the effect was more often glib than penetrating. There was too much bleak distance between the king and his fool to reach across. Rid them of sympathy and these huge lines get the shakes:

Fool:    Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.
Lear:    O! Let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven;
Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!

Actually, of all things, it was near indistinguishable costume not age or aging that looked inescapable. No one stoops and Edgar, as poor bare Tom, is unmissable. Lear, mad, should appear ‘fantastically dressed with wild flowers’. You are more likely to notice his pronounced twitching and swinging arm than his headband. Presumably, in a man of eighty plus, this is a sign of Parkinson’s but then it makes sense to join the destruction of Lear’s reason to a modern interpretation that trembles upon Alzheimer’s.

Caroline Elms as Goneril & Oliver Huband as Edmund.

Caroline Elms as Goneril & Oliver Huband as Edmund.

Set aside the difficulties of keeping the verse safe – and some of it is gunned down – Lear can still be a bewildering nightmare of a play, if not downright disorientating, which might put an audience alongside the blind Gloucester (Ben Schofield) who thinks that he has just thrown himself off the white cliffs of Dover when he’s just taken a tumble in a field. Incriminating letters fall out of pockets and the foul Edmund proves irresistible to both Goneril and Regan, which provoked some inopportune laughter. For some reason, at the herald’s command, ‘Sound’ [trumpet] you hear a bell. Swords are fencing foils and you are treated to some impressive attacks and parries.

At heart, of course, this is a production where that throwaway “Love you” at the end of a 21st century phone call meets Lear’s last howling entry with Cordelia dead in his arms. Conklin and cast have done their very best to get you back to 1606 when it really hurts.

 

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 3 March)

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The Addams Family (Pleasance: 17 – 21 Nov ’15)

Photos: Oliver Buchanan

Photos: Oliver Buchanan

“Funny to the point of tears…”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Nae Bad

I hate The Addams Family theme song. It’s not that I think it’s bad, I think it’s too good. It’s every bit as iconic as it is catchy. No matter who you are or what you do, as soon as you hear that da da dadum *click click*, you’ll be reduced to a finger-snapping, grinning mess. Driving a car? Doesn’t matter. Operating heavy machinery? Tough luck nerd. You’re on a one way bus trip to Addams-town and there’s only one song playing on the radio.

And just as epochal is the tune’s creepy, kooky subject matter. The cemetery-dirt stained shoes of the Addams family are impossibly large ones to fill, and although EUSOG’s ambitious production fell an inch or two short of six feet under, it’s a performance so bouncy and entertaining that you’d hardly even notice.

It’s crisis in the Addams household: Wednesday (Ashleigh More) is growing up fast, and even worse, she’s fallen in love with a guy so normal he makes white bread look like a Harley Davidson. Now, his parents are coming to town, and the family needs to be on their best behaviour. It goes just about as well as it sounds like it might. It’s hardly a daring new direction in terms of plot cliché, but there are fine seeds growing in this well-trod ground.

From the outset, it’s very clear that this is a talented cast. Scott Meenan’s Gomez is an utter joy to watch, and an even greater one to listen to. His comic timing and twitchy crispness of movement enhanced an already impressively funny repertoire of gags. But even more impressive was his emotional range: it’s easy to tickle a funnybone, but less so to pull a heartstring.

And whilst Melani Carrie’s Morticia often lacked the steely, sultry smugness which forms the character’s backbone, it’s hard not to be blown away by her voice – not to mention her knack for latin footwork. She was very much the smoky family matriarch, but when next to Meenan, she seemed oddly muted. However, this never affected the performance to the point of becoming a significant problem, and all feelings of flatness were limited to the spoken portions of the show. When Carrie opens her mouth, it’s like being hit by a verbal sledgehammer.

Though perhaps more nuanced than the footwork was More’s Wednesday Addams. Although usually presented as a monotone proto-goth, I was pleasantly surprised by More’s characterization. She perfectly embodies the sense of being pulled in two directions, and manages to do so in such an entertaining and genuine way that it never falls into the usual trap of feeling hackneyed or trope-ish. This was an excellent performance in every sense – especially the oddly sweet chemistry between her and masochistic brother Pugsley (Holly Marsden).

Championing the side of “normalcy” is the impressive Nitai Levi; having traded his moody rocker persona a-la Rent for  wonderfully dorky fianceé Lucas, he provided a great foil for More’s Wednesday, delicately dancing the line between nerdily sincere and annoying. And it seems like the talent runs in the family: Mother Alice (Esmee Cook) and Father Mal (Patrick Wilmott) inject ever more laughter into what is already a show bursting at the seams.

Addams Family 2

But if stealing a show was a jailable offence, Campbell Keith would be going away for a very long time. Acting as the show’s narrator, Keith’s Uncle Fester dominated the stage every time his weirdly pale head popped out of the wings. It’s hard to make a man who looks like Humpty Dumpty’s goth cousin charismatic, but I’ll be damned if he didn’t succeed.

But all the talent in the world, unfortunately, can’t control a tech setup. Whilst the swell of voices (especially thanks to the ghostly chorus of Ancestors) managed to rise above the band, the microphones were simply too quiet. I lost most of the lyrics in the first half, and the problem still persisted through some numbers in the second act.  And the lights, whilst vibrant and interesting, sometimes felt oddly out of sync with the action on stage. In isolation, either of these issues may not matter. But eventually, grains of sand do become a heap.

And although the chorus should be applauded for their brilliance in terms of both movement and vocal work, the choreography sometimes felt cluttered. There were times I was genuinely afraid an overenthusiastic kick might KO the cellist. Having fewer objects and people on stage may have helped this production breathe easy.

However, I’m loathe to admit the above for a number of reasons. The first being that it would be a crying shame to lose any of the strong chorus, and the masterful musical section – the former never faltering even in the show’s faster and more energetic sections. And secondly, changing the stage would mean altering the breathtakingly Burton-esque set dreamed up by Lu Kocaurek. I’d feel more comfortable pushing over a henge.

Although blighted by a few blips, this was a show more than worthy of its pedigree. Funny to the point of tears and touching to very much the same end, EUSOG’s Addams Family is just as creepy and kooky as that damned theme song promises. Check this one out while you can: Kate Pasola and Rebecca Simmonds have conjured up a brilliant show indeed.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 17 November).

Go to EUSOG for The Addams Family & cast list.

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Sophie Pelham: Country Files (Pleasance Courtyard, 7 – 30 Aug : 16.45 : 1hr)

“Likeable, effusive, hilarious”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Upon entering the Pleasance Cellar (sorry, Dorset) the audience is offered a tot of sherry and a sausage roll to get into the mood. For me, in this, my third back-to-back show, this seemed like a dream come true. And indeed the dream continued for the first 10 minutes or so when Pelham, as village lady-of-leisure Vanessa Bluwer hilariously tells us about life in Kilmington, her noble employers, and the various courses she runs on a voluntary basis (everything from breast-feeding to bereavement counselling). As this character Pelham is likeable, effusive and strikes a good balance between prepared material and audience interaction.

Alas, after this the show falters somewhat, with a series of less well developed characters, too much audience interaction and little drive to keep the performance moving. Pelham’s Lord Ponsanby, a drunken country gent utters my funniest line of the show “I’m not homosexual, just bloody posh”, but falls flat after a few minutes and it’s a bit of a relief when she goes off to change again. Two of her characters are animals (a badger and a fox respectively, the less said about those the better), but posh school girl Primrose and yummy mummy Sulky Waterboat are both enjoyable, making fun of relevant stereotypes.

While some parts of the audience interaction in this show were great – getting various members to hold a hobby horse, read a letter and answer the odd question – I felt that on the whole there was an over reliance on this, and as the show went on there was a definite sense of awkwardness in the room, particularly among those in the front row who seemed to get “picked on” multiple times.

And just as the level of audience interaction was pushing it, sometimes her jokes also strayed over the line into being somewhat cringeworthy, the worst offender of these definitely being the one about the Muslims… hushed silence all round. Some gags were spot on tone-wise though: safer topics included politics and class, both suitably ridiculed, while even references to underage sex got a few chuckles.

Overall, I think this show has the bones of something that could be really special, but would be better if it focused on fewer individual characters, and having a clearer sense of narrative between them, to keep the show flowing from one scene to the next. A good effort.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 22 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED