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)

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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)

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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)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

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

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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)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

 

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

faimprov_cogarts_london_thebeauvoir_andrealops-113.jpg

 “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