+3 Review: Mungo Park (Summerhall: 3 – 27 Aug. 8.45pm 1h 20m.)

Images: Dogstar Theatre.

Images: Dogstar Theatre.

“… an invitation to taste the popcorn, then it’s serried lights and blinding action”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Nae Bad

There is a Mungo Park Road in Gravesend, Kent, and sheltered housing at Mungo Park Court in Selkirk which seems all a bit sedentary when it comes to the tremendous life of Mungo P himself. Born in 1771, near Selkirk right enough, he ventured out down the Niger River and was the first European to reach Timbuktu. Of course, he did not have a passport so that nice phrasing, used in this show, about his Majesty ‘requests and requires [that] the bearer pass freely without let or hindrance’ did not apply. Instead his heroic travels are the stuff of bedtime stories, ‘To Selkirk … and beyond!’ if you will, which is where Mungo Park Theatre (Copenhagen) and Dogstar Theatre (Inverness) come flying in.

Writer and director Martin Lyngbo wants Hollywood-on-stage for the ‘inner eye of everyone in the audience’. So we get an invitation to taste the popcorn, then it’s serried lights and blinding action. We move swiftly from the Highlands, to London, and – via the two journeys of 1796 and 1805 – to central West Africa, on foot and in a canoe.

Travel at the wrong time and it’s very hot and wet and deadly out there. The African interior was a huge gap surrounded by a coastline, for its ‘heart lies in darkness’ and between August and October forty-one out of the forty-five or so Brits on the second expedition died of fever. How Parks survived for as long as he did is an open question but – to judge by this play – it was a combination of physical toughness, determination (to see home and family again), good sense and good luck. Africa for him is ‘a fragile network’ of peoples and customs and you got nowhere without respecting that.

Mungo Park goes back to 2006. That first Danish production was rehearsed during the crisis that surrounded publication in a newspaper of the Muhammad cartoons. This English language version, by Jonathan Sydenham, still looks as if it is significantly influenced by that controversy. Clever caricature asks questions of how individuals are represented and received by ‘others’, culturally akin or not. African kings Desse and Ali play ‘up’ their obvious differences in sing-song pidgin speech; their messengers play their crafty roles as would flunkies of a European court but with outlandish accents. Sir Joseph Banks, notable patron of the natural sciences, is as interested in gold as he is in plants. Lieutenant John Martyn, in command of Parks’ escort, is more blood thirsty racist than an officer and a gentleman. Desperate and dangerous confusion results from misunderstanding and prejudice.

Kingsley Amadi (l)

Kingsley Amadi (l)

Matthew Zajac is impressive as the courageous and virtuous Mungo, whose story we follow at every turn, literally so as he fights his good fight on a turntable. Anders Budde Christensen is all exaggerated gesture and of wily tongue as emissary and as the not-so-enlightened James Rennell, map-maker, who would be master of all he surveys. Kingsley Amadi is black African potentate and crazy (white) army officer. It is so confidently performed that the zany is never risible, the indomitable never preposterous.

The rapid screenplay, to go with the filmic idea, produces strong exposition – particularly when its opening is chalked-up on the blackboard rather like title cards to a silent movie of colonial history in the making – and a dynamic narrative. No visual ‘shots’ are projected so there’s a spontaneous, on-the-spot quality to the whole piece. For the most part it is tightly focused upon Parks himself and when it isn’t there is some loss in terms of its depth of field. Performers running up and down the central aisle in a bright light did not look right.

Sturdy Mungo always has a satchel for his notebook and his Travels were published in 1799 but if you want a stirring measure of the man and of his life you won’t do better than this motion picture of a play.

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 24 August)

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+3 Review: Karmana, Songs of the Roma (Summerhall: 12-20 August: 21.15: 1 hour)

“Fantastic, moving and highly recommendable”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Karmana, Songs of Roma is performed in the Library Gallery of Summerhall. As the Scottish guitarist and composer Simon Thacker and Polish cellist Justyna Joblonska walked in to the room the small crowd fell silent. They did not introduce themselves which I found a little odd but as Thacker began his solo instrumental performance of Albedo I guessed this was to add to the dramatic effect of the song. Immediately I could see that this is one very talented musician who is clearly passionate about his work.

For the second song Thacker was joined by his playing partner Jablonska who’s performance was equally captivating. The flowing sounds of the cello combined with the intricate sounds of the guitar hypnotised the crowd, who remained so  silent throughout you could have heard a pin drop.

Throughout the show Thacker takes the audience on a Romani musical journey with songs from the gypsy tradition. In between songs he explains the history and meaning of each song including his thoughts and reasoning behind each composition. His own personal experience with Indian, Balkan and Spanish music add a special twist to the performance from beginning to end.

Personally I thought the highlight of the evening was when the endearing singer and violinist Masha Natanson joined to complete the trio. Originally from Lubin, Poland, Natanson adds a new, traditional element to the performance. As cliché as it may sound, I really did get goosebumps when she began to sing Ne Govorite Mne O Nem (Don’t Talk To Me About Him). Natanson sang with such emotion that although I couldn’t understand the Russian lyrics I could tell she was portraying a heart-broken woman. At one point she even charmed the audience with her premiere of speaking in English to a crowd and no one could help but smile and giggle as she tried her very best!

Perhaps I have been caught up in the excitement and excess of the Fringe but the only thing I would like to have seen improved was the set. The whole room was lit in a romantic red but I feel focusing more of the lighting on the performers would have added to the dramatic effect of the songs.

Overall it was a fantastic, moving and highly recommendable show – particularly for those interested in the traditional music of different cultures.

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

Reviewer: Iona Young (Seen 16 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

 

+3 Review: Don’t Panic! It’s Challenge Anneka (Summerhall: 5-28 Aug: 14.50: 1hr)

“A beautiful and emotional journey”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Much like deviser and performer Sophie Winter, I was also a huge fan of the TV programme Challenge Anneka in the 90s, so I couldn’t miss the chance to see a show featuring my favourite presenter from yesteryear. As the audience enters, Winter embodies her heroine – complete with bright jumpsuit, blonde wig and bumbag – welcoming us to the performance and offering treats. It’s a great way to set the tone as one of comfort, support, nostalgia and togetherness.

The piece follows the story of Holly – someone who suffers from anxiety – and we learn what brings it on and how it affects her and those around her. Anneka soon arrives on the scene to help restore Holly to her former happy self, and her challenge unfolds throughout the performance. Winter plays every character throughout the piece, showing great dexterity in capturing personas of people we can all relate to, including the boss who doesn’t listen, the doctor who uses too much technical jargon and the mum who tries to help buy doesn’t really understand.

The performance uses a lot of video, played through an oversized TV on stage, which, as well as demonstrating the level of care and attention put into this piece, allows Winter (as Holly) to react to these characters, and for us to see and feel these reactions close up. Holly comes right into the audience at times, showing her to be just another person like us, and it’s really engaging to see her honest and personal accounts and every side of suffering from anxiety.

I have to say that structurally I did get a little lost and at times I couldn’t quite tell when or where the action was taking place. But this a show where narrative is far less important than the beautiful and emotional journey we are taken on. The overall soul and spirit are absolutely intact and it is a real joy to experience.

As Winter points out at the end, there is no grand resolution to Holly’s anxiety, and that it may well be with her for the rest of her life. Drawing parallels with Anneka Rice’s challenges, the overall message of the piece is that just because a first big step is achieved, that doesn’t mean that the problem is solved. Ongoing support, nurturing, care and hard work are still required, and I think it’s right that this is highlighted, as it shows a real connection and openness with the subject matter.

An important an enjoyable work, on a highly topical subject matter. Please go and see it.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 14 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Uncanny Valley (Summerhall: 29 – 31 March) – part of Edinburgh International Science Festival

Photo:.Borderline Theatre

Photo:.Borderline Theatre

“Educational and entertaining, well-worth taking the kids to”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

As a child I was never particularly into science. At school the lessons were boring and didn’t challenge me to think creatively or engage with it in real life situations. Uncanny Valley, however, does both, placing today’s children at the heart of a situation we may well find ourselves in 30 years’ time.

Essentially it’s a show about humans and robots, and the difference between the two. With the world becoming ever more robotic, the subject matter is engaging for audiences of all ages and I certainly learned a thing or two about artificial intelligence and the Turing Test during the performance. While I imagine 9-year-old me might have struggled with some of the concepts and sitting still through some of the longer “lesson” parts, many of the younger audience members seemed to grasp it fairly well and engage in the interactive elements.

As a children’s piece, one can forgive a certain amount of ridiculousness and be able to suspend disbelief to still be able to enjoy the action. Credit goes to the actors for keeping the performance engaging, with boundless energy creating big, bold characters that are instantly relatable. Kirsty Stuart in particular shines as the cut-throat Mayor who’ll stop at nothing to eliminate robots in her town.

I would have liked closer attention paid to the narrative to keep it seamless all the way through: there were quite a few unexplained jumps in time and location in the story, and I never quite believed Ada’s relationship with her adopted parents. In saying that, some of the theatrical elements are very well done: the Turing Test at the end of the show is funny and gripping; the open moral discussion about whether to swerve a car off road and kill a group of chickens to save yourself is very thought-provoking, and I was even able to feel emotional connection with the robot characters of OKAY and SARA, which adds a really nice dimension.

The beginning is a little confusing – I feel that Rob Drummond as facilitator perhaps tries too hard to convey a lot of factual information early on and doesn’t seem as comfortable in parts of audience interaction as I would expect from an experienced TIE professional. These are only small moments throughout the piece though, as on the whole it’s quite slick and professional.

Overall, Uncanny Valley is educational and entertaining, and well-worth taking the kids to, as long as you’re ready for a bit of thinking! Theatrically it is a bit rough around the edges but still full of heart.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 31 March)

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‘To Breathe’ (Summerhall: 24 – 28 Nov ’15)

To Breathe 1


Photography: Andrew Perry. Back line, l to r: Erin Whalley, Tiffany Soirat, Anna Elisabeth Thomsen. Front line, l to r, Adela Briansó, Lewis McDonald, Maddie Flint.

“Inventive and intriguing”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

It’s not often you see student theatre groups perform original work with such a strong dance element, especially pieces on complex themes with so much thought behind them. They generally take hours upon hours to devise and rehearse, so one must give Theatre Paradok kudos for even getting to the startline of this show, and for packing Summerhall’s Demonstration Room to the rafters with an eager audience on a Thursday night.

Given the premise of To Breathe as a physical exploration of body and breath, to me it was a somewhat strange choice to develop it with a cast of performers with limited dance experience and training. The lack of finesse and technique on display in the more choreographed elements unfortunately detracted from what could have been a very powerful and moving (no pun intended) performance, and this was the lasting impression I took with me – a great concept, but perhaps slightly overreached.

As a theatrical spectacle, it was certainly very accomplished: it contained a lot of light and shade, tension and calm, with a good sense of progression and drive, and the performers’ ability to create changing moods seamlessly was very impressive. Early on the piece was very playful, and the performers raised several laughs in their innocent self-discovery, before moving onto more emotive storytelling. Rachel Stollery’s design really complemented the action, as did the subtle use of music, and with a healthy mix of ensemble and solo sections, structurally this show ticks all the boxes.

What the troupe may not have shown in dance technique or grace, they more than made up for in emotional intensity, concentration and sheer gumption. There was a great energy and spirit to the performance, with the whole company throwing themselves into it wholeheartedly. Maddie Flint in particular was utterly watchable throughout, with a very engaging and expressive face.

 

To Breathe 2

Lewis MacDonald and Tiffany Soirat

While choreographically it was a fairly safe piece (albeit with a few too many cliched motifs for my liking), there were moments of dramatic risk that were inventive and intriguing. In one of the duets (performed by Lewis McDonald and Tiffany Soirat) the dancers fought and tussled to cover each other in paint, in a sequence that was both passionate and very well controlled. There were some great lifts on show, and this section oozed with sexual chemistry. Later on, the dancers experimented with different movements with their hands in a pile of mud, which again showed great creativity, yet it was difficult to see the connection between this and the rest of the performance.

Overall, the heart and soul of this performance were absolutely in the right place – but I would have liked to have seen more focus on the dance elements to make it more complete.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 26 November)

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What I learned from Johnny Bevan (Summerhall, 7 – 30 Aug : 16.55 : 1hr)

“A simple story, powerfully written, mesmerisingly performed”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

Sometimes I feel I should just give up. I see a show like this that makes me think theatre can’t get any better, so why should I bother going to see anything else? This absolute gem of a show, performed in a tucked away little room at an old veterinary college, is exactly why I keep coming back.

The story follows Nick, a young man from a wealthy background, who is desperate to shake off his family shackles and cultural expectations and discover his own identity at university. There he meets Johnny Bevan – the intelligent, bohemian philosopher from a council estate who opens up that new world Nick has been looking for. And while their initial connection is electric, years later when the two meet again, can Nick save Johnny from the tortured soul he’s become, or does Nick actually need saving from his consumerist lifestyle as a writer in London?

The writing of this piece is some of the best I have ever come across. Part poem, part epic monologue, it oozes style and professionalism, while sounding completely natural when performed. The story arch is perfectly framed, and never once feels indulgent or rushed. Every word is carefully selected to portray character and develop the story, with rhythm and selected rhyming that make it very easy to connect with. My favourite line was when Nick described going to meet Johnny “over lentil-based cuisine”, while some of the digs and views on modern society are captured with terrifying accuracy and wit.

The writing would mean very little, however, were it not for the incredibly emotive and gutsy performance from Luke Wright. He captures Nick’s naive early years, his coming-of-age at university with Johnny, and perhaps most mesmerisingly of all, his look back at the those touching moments and unhappiness with who he has become. Throughout the piece he talks directly to the audience, often very up close, which really engages and brings a sense of honesty to the piece. At select moments he looks back the the projected backdrop in reflection or shame, while his physicality captures every nuance of the characters and situations being presented. It is a truly masterful performance.

The technical aspects of the show are simple, but perfectly sympathetic with the script and style with which it is performed. Hand drawn images projected onto the backdrop show the setting of each scene, while subtle changes in lighting accentuate the mood perfectly. Anything more would detract from the piece’s overall power.

This is a simple story that is powerfully written and mesmerisingly performed – I cannot recommend it highly enough.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 15 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Poetry Can F*ck Off (Summerhall, 14 – 22 Aug : 15.30 : 55 mins)

“The idea and thinking behind this piece is great”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

Possibly the most ironic title of the Fringe this year, this show is, in essence, a very one-sided performance essay about exactly why poetry shouldn’t “f*ck off”. I use the word “essay” deliberately, as it is scripted very much like one, making statements about the power of poetry, giving quotes from poems in different times and cultures to back these up, and assessing the impact these poets and their readers have made in each instance.

While the idea is commendable and shows a lot of well thought-out research, as a performance it didn’t really work. The piece was delivered incredibly quickly and it was difficult to keep up with all the different examples that they all became lost in one another, while I spent the whole show waiting for a counter-argument to balance out the very liberal and pro-poetry point of view.

However, what I found most irritating about this performance was the very overused technique of repetition to emphasise a specific point. It seemed that almost every thirty seconds one actor would say a line, only to have the others repeat the last few words like some sort of robotic echo, or for three performers to simply repeat the line three times. It got very tired very quickly, while at some points it also got a bit shouty, contradicting the notion of this being an intelligent and mature piece.

With four performers on stage doing the “reading”, an additional musician was used to add rhythm and dynamic to the performance throughout. The playing was impressive, and kept the piece moving with variations in mood according to specific anecdotes. However, the music did little to alleviate the sense of non-stop pounding this show delivered, as there wasn’t enough variation in tempo or dynamic to break the monotony of delivery.

In saying all that, I admit I may have missed the point somewhere along the line, and this piece’s intentional styling may be a metaphor for a bigger message. Overall I think the idea and thinking behind this piece is great, but the form and delivery of it leave a lot to be desired – it seemed so wrapped up in making a statement that it neglected a lot of the basics of good performance.

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 15 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED