‘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

My Name Is… (Summerhall, 13 – 30 Aug: 19:25 : 1hr 20mins)

“Striking, thought-provoking and immensely entertaining”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars Outstanding

Plays based around well-known news stories are always a thorny matter. Based on the headline story from 2006, “My Name is…” tells of a family torn apart, and the struggles of identity which come from broken marriages. It would have been very easy for this play to take sides, especially given the venue, but what results is one of the most nuanced, balanced plays I’ve ever seen. “My Name Is…” considers the problems of split cultural identity and family dissonance with such multi-angled consideration that it wouldn’t look out of place in an academic study. This is a show which is as compelling as it is thought provoking, and one of the few which left me feeling humbled after it had ended.

Telling a story from two distinct perspectives, “My Name Is…” tackles the problems both with the skewing of information by the media and the apparent schism between secular European and Islamic standards of living – and, as easy as it could have been to the contrary, giving both an equal share of good and bad. This is a measured, well thought out production – one which mimics reality far better than the news reports upon which is is based. Sudha Bhuchar has created a script which simultaneously pulls no punches and leaves no stone unturned, telling an already intriguing story from every angle possible.

But the show would have been nothing without its extremely talented trio of actors. Ahmed, Bartke and MacDonald should all be commended for their performances, which reflected such realism and subtlety that I often forgot I was watching a play at all. Their emotions, their physicality, their delivery – all of it was so raw, and laid claim to such substance, that they not only acted the part, they became the part. These are undeniably talented performers, and they should all be proud of what they accomplished on the small Summerhall stage.

Combined with a cleverly put-together set, minimal-yet-effective lighting and a script which weaves multiple dialogues together like a verbal dance, “My Name Is…” was one of the most striking, thought-provoking and immensely entertaining shows I’ve seen at Fringe yet. This is one of those rare productions I wish everyone could see: one which approaches polarising subjects with sensitivity, nuance and tact, whilst retaining a thrilling degree of entertainment.

Absolutely bloody excellent.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 13 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Chicken (Summerhall, 8th-10th 12th – 17th 19th – 24th 26th – 30th Aug : 17:05 : 1hr)

“Cerebral and exhaustingly intense”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Nae Bad

The act of waking up dazed and confused, often by a strangely realistic half dream, comes under the medical umbrella term of “parasomnia”. I say this because upon leaving the hay-strewn, smoke wreathed tent in which I saw writer Molly Davies’ dark comedy  “Chicken”, I felt a very similar sensation. I was impressed, dazed, and confused as all hell.

“Chicken” takes place in a dystopian future (though, as someone from the north can tell you, the themes are very much contemporary) in which the north and south of Britain have become so alienated from each-other that they are formally separating. In East Anglia, witchcraft and politics threaten to tear rural life apart – especially the town’s most precious export: chickens.

First thing’s first: the tech in this show was absolutely beautiful. The concerted use of blackouts, swells and musical stings to make one character seemingly materialise horror-esque on stage was the tip of what proved to be a technically marvellous iceberg. If you’re looking for inspiration for your next horror show, look no further than the chattering, eerie soundscapes and moody lights programmed by Elliot Griggs and George Dennis.

There was also some very strong acting talent on display: Benjamin Dilloway shone as gruff, masculine Harry, and Rosie Sheehy absolutely stole the show as Emily, the town’s resident Wiccan; often silent, but with a stage presence which spoke louder than an exploding tannoy speaker. There were no weak links in this cast, all of whom lent gritty humanity to an otherwise bafflingly surreal setup.

However, although this show was billed as a dark comedy, I was often confused as to whether to laugh or simply sit there in confused silence. There were moments which were genuinely humorous, but most of it was spent pondering whether the strange spectacle unfolding in front of me was meant to be ridiculous or harrowing. And whilst it could be argued that is the very point, which I would be fully apt to admit I may have missed, it sometimes lent itself to a muddled rather than complementary pairing.

And this was not helped by a script which occasionally felt clunky and forced in its weaker moments, especially when compared to the uncanny naturalism of dialogue at stronger points. Characters would mingle rural vernacular with oddly robotic cadence and non-foreshortened speech on occasion, which was jarring.

This is a show which requires time and attention to enjoy properly, and an appreciation for subtle, rather than explicit humour. Although short, it’s cerebral and exhaustingly intense ride. And while it’s shortcomings meant it could not grab me as I think it should have, I can see fans of dark comedy latching onto it with eager claws.

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 8 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Going Viral (Summerhall, Sat 8th Aug – Sun 30th Aug: 14:10 : 70 mins)

https://i0.wp.com/www.theyardtheatre.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/danielbye-.jpg

“Daniel Bye’s energy and wit are utterly infectious”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars  Outstanding

There was no better way to set the tone for Daniel Bye’s storytelling show “Going Viral” than the way in which he began: simply appearing covertly from the audience, charmingly and verbosely commentating. A one man show such as this one requires charisma, boundless energy and utter command of a room to be pulled off correctly: and I am very happy to say that Bye did so with flying colours.

Without revealing too much, the story revolves around two themes: grief, and viruses. It tells the story of a worldwide epidemic of a disease which causes uncontrollable weeping, and along the way the audience expect to learn a surprising amount of information about viral biology. This was the only show I’ve encountered so far which listed a doctor of Epidemiology in its crew, and the touch of real-world expertise lends rock-hard substance to Bye’s tale.

And what a tale it was: intercut with inventive illustrative examples (my favourite being an extremely clever metaphor involving an unholy amount of liquorice allsorts), Bye’s seventy minute story took the audience on a journey through both medical conditions and the human condition, with an atmosphere so thick and engrossing that I often forgot to make notes. As someone who is often disappointed by the predictability of many plots both written and spoken, this realistic and unpredictable tale was a breath of fresh (if pathogen-laden) air.

And by far the most entertaining facet of the story was Bye himself, who approached what for others would be a daunting subject matter with razor-sharp humour and a seemingly ineffable confidence – but his greatest trick was to pull this off whilst still retaining that touch of the everyman which had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand from beginning to end. In short, Daniel Bye’s energy and wit are utterly infectious.

Combined with subtle but theatrical lighting, the drama was solid enough to break a pool cue over.

However, without giving too much away, I was left slightly disappointed by what seemed an oddly enigmatic and anticlimactic ending. After becoming so wrapped in the world Bye creates, it was almost akin to disappointment of the last bite of a cake dropping from your fork and onto the floor.

However, this did little to affect the rest of what was a noteworthy and slick performance. Daniel Bye and his team should be extremely proud of what has proven to be one of the best storytelling performances I’ve seen at Fringe yet. This is not one to be missed.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 8 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

‘The Effect’ (Summerhall: 11 – 14 March’15)

Cameron Crighton as Tristan and Scarlett Mack as Connie All photos: Firebrand.

Cameron Crighton as Tristan and Scarlett Mack as Connie
All photos: Firebrand.

“A well-thought-out and faultlessly-delivered show”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Set across the four-week span of a clinical drugs trial, The Effect (2012) is a play which tackles perhaps the highest concept of all: our ability to assess and analyse the workings of our own mind. Penned by Lucy Prebble , best known for writing the briefly-sensational ENRON, it’s revived here by Borders-based company Firebrand Theatre. Ironically though, Firebrand’s clinically-excellent performance throws into focus a few pronounced oddities in the script.

The “effect” of the title is the placebo effect – the powerful medical phenomenon which says that if we think we’re taking a drug, we’ll experience at least some of its benefits. Prebble explores that concept through two parallel storylines: a young couple who may or may not be falling in love, and a doctor who may or may not be depressed. Intellectually, I can see how this all hangs together, but it still felt like I was watching two plays uncomfortably squashed into one. “What is love?” and “Do antidepressants work?” are just very different questions, and I’m not sure it’s possible to tackle them both while doing full justice to either.

Much more successful, for me, were the human tales. On the one hand, there’s a sweet boy-meets-girl story – with the requisite courtship, predictable crisis, and the hope of a reconciliation by the end. It’s a time-worn formula, but it’s well-executed, and the tale has a twist that’s genuinely startling yet fully justified by the plot. Actors Scarlett Mack and Cameron Crighton do a fine job delivering characters we can love, with Crighton’s physical restlessness also adding plenty of interest to a series of otherwise quite static scenes.

Pauline Knowles as Lorna

Pauline Knowles as Lorna

Jonathan Coote as Toby

Jonathan Coote as Toby

Alongside them we have Pauline Knowles’ acerbic but secretly-warm-hearted doctor, who provides a lot of deadpan humour but clearly has a vulnerable side too. Knowles impressed me with her ability to inject subtle emotion, as did Jonathan Coote, playing the pharmaceutical-company manager with a secret in his past. It’s hinted early on that these two characters have met before, and the details of their relationship are revealed in carefully-measured doses – an ongoing mystery which underpins the first act of the play.

Fine acting and direction are complemented by an effective design. The whole production is stark and monochrome, filled with medical whites and impersonal greys, a choice which serves to highlight rather than diminish the colourful humanity on display. Every now and then the cast break off into stylised sequences set to a techno-inspired soundtrack, punctuating the wordy script while skipping lightly over the duller parts of the plot. At times it all grows a little protracted – and I certainly wouldn’t have minded if they’d cut the last ten seconds of the sex scene – but all in all, Firebrand Theatre do well to thread a coherent path through a complex storyline.

In the end, the effect of The Effect was a mildly frustrating one: the script tries too hard to draw connections, and ends up feeling both crowded and languid at the same time. But that’s no reflection at all on the production company, who once again (see our reviews of Outlying Islands and of Blackbird) have laid on a well-thought-out and faultlessly-delivered show. All in all, this one’s well worth catching on its remaining dates at Summerhall – for the questions it poses may be disjointed, but they’re still intriguing ones.

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Richard Stamp (Seen 11 March)

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