Paddington Bear’s First Concert (Underbelly, Bristo Square – Cowbarn: 12, 14-26 Aug: 11:20: 60 mins)

“There’s balloons, inflatable fruit, Hungarian folk dancing, sing-alongs, and more than a bit of mayhem.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Beloved bear. Slick marketing. Fabulous venue. Great timeslot. This was always going to be a formula that would bring in the punters. The queue stretches round the block. My heart sinks a little. Nothing this popular can possibly be any good. That’s the rule. Except of course that our Paddington Bear breaks all the rules.

We’re at the famous London railway terminus. An orchestra rushes through the audience trying (unsuccessfully) to catch their train. Their unscheduled delay provides a window of opportunity to tell the story of a stowaway bear, the family he adopts, the people he meets, and his first ever concert at the Royal Albert Hall.

Along the way we meet the members of the orchestra, learn about how to conduct them, and how to make them go faster, and faster, and faster. There’s balloons, inflatable fruit, Hungarian folk dancing, sing-alongs, and more than a bit of mayhem. If you are planning on seeing a live action show replete with actual bear (or becostumed stand in) you will leave this show disappointed. If, on the other hand, you are even a little bit curious, easily excited, and unashamedly thrilled by people who can do something amazing (like playing musical instruments really, really, really well) then you will leave Paddington Bear’s First Concert more than a little happy.

A quick glance at the critical reactions to Paddington Bear’s First Concert and it’s clear that the underpaid, under-informed, overworked misery-gutses are out in force. This isn’t (shock-horror) a show aimed at a world weary 20 something reviewing 15 shows a day irrespective of genre or personal preference. It is however the real deal. Paddington’s creator Michael Bond and musical godfather Herbert Chappell wrote this adaptation in 1984. Perhaps this joyful and jovial revival ought to make more of its authenticity amid all that slick advertising?

Paddington Bear’s First Concert really is a concert. A group young musicians play a range of strings, woodwind, and brass instruments under the watchful eye of their conductor who is also our storyteller. Her performance is pitch perfect. Beside me Daughter 1.0 (aged 3) is entranced, it’s not hard to see how that stuff with that piper in Hamelin went down so easily.

Bond and Chappell’s genius, or perhaps sleight of hand, was to create a show which quietly makes the introduction – “children meet classical music, classical music meet children” – without fanfare or condescension. There is an unhealthy notion abroad in Britain that high art should be taken and endured like bad tasting medicine. Paddington Bear’s First Concert remains a guaranteed cure against all such silly, self-defeating cynicism.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 9 August 2018)

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Fag/Stag (Underbelly, Cowgate: 3-27th Aug: 16.00: 60mins)

“A triumph… top marks”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

When it comes to producing good theatre, sometimes the most simple ideas are the most effective. Fag/Stag is a case in point. It follows the lives of two best friends (Corgan and Jimmy) in the run up to a mutual friend (and former crush)’s wedding and is staged with just two actors – each playing one of the friends – and two stools, plus a couple of token props to help set specific scenes. What unravels is an absolute masterclass in story-telling, from both the written and performed perspective.

While structured as two interweaving monologues, the script contains clever overlaps allowing both characters to present their respective accounts of specific incidents: often to humorous effect, (tempering self-indulgent exaggerations) yet sometimes to fill in poignant details the other may have been too ashamed of (or drunk) to share.

And therein lies the power of this piece – the frankness of story-telling. We get to see the full picture of both characters’ insecurities and weaknesses, either from their own mouth or from the mouth of their friend, which means we get to know and empathise with them very quickly. It’s both comfortable and compelling to watch.

What’s most touching about this performance is how it beautifully and understatedly presents a relationship not often seen on stage – a straight man, Corgan (Chris Isaacs), and his gay best friend Jimmy (Jeffrey Jay Fowler). Theirs is evidently a true and caring friendship, with late night emergency calls to rescue each other from sticky situations, an ease with they can talk about really personal issues, and a bluntness in dealing with each others’ misdemeanours head on-on. Their differing perspectives on specific situations is often amusing, but what comes across most emphatically is the importance of sticking up for your buddy, whoever they are.

The plot itself sees Jimmy try and come to terms with his break-up with his long-term partner, and Corgan’s attempt to deal with the fact his former love is marrying another man. It’s fairly emotive in parts, with longer monologues drilling down into details and feelings, yet performed with the vibrancy and sensitivity required to keep it captivating throughout. There are also plenty of laughs to be had, most notably regarding a certain scent of air freshener referred to on multiple occasions

By keeping the design and direction very simple throughout this piece, The Last Great Hunt allow the story and quality of acting to really shine through. This really is a triumph in getting the basics of a show absolutely right, and many other companies can learn from this production. Top marks.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 24 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: Ameé Smith – Relax, it’s not about you (Underbelly Med Quad: Aug 3 – 29: 15.00 : 1hr)

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“Optimistic, off-the-wall and unapologetically human”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Outstanding

I try my best not to judge shows before they’re done. But, finding the queue as lonely as a tarantula’s birdcage, I confess to some trepidation as I waited for Ameé Smith’s “Relax, it’s not about you”. Shows with sub-dozen audiences can be tense at the best of times, and given the very personal nature of Smith’s themes, comedy’s need for reactivity and my own creeping paranoia about audience interaction, it seemed a bespoke recipe for awkwardness.

But, for once, it appears the mantra of the 2* performer rings true: the reviewer was dead wrong.

Who exactly “Relax, it’s not about you” is about could make for an excellent piece of theatre analysis – could be Smith’s ex’s, could be Smith herself; and, perhaps overarchingly, it could be about every person watching. Complete with examinations of toxic relationship types, explorations of what makes something TMI and confessions of Smith’s own foibles, “Relax, it’s not about you” is a frenetic, laugh-filled odyssey through the minefield that is interhuman relations.

Whilst it all might sound a bit metaphysical, it’s certainly entertaining. It’s somewhere between hearing stories from a drunk aunt and hanging out with an unlucky-in-love best friend: sometimes rambling ,sometimes short and sharp, and always cringingly self-aware. And whilst the occasional semantic meander leads to a dead-end, Smith seems to be an expert at winding back her own train of thought. And rest assured, despite the heavy premise, it’s a set with its fair share of laughs. You’ll never look at ceramic owls the same way again, and that’s a promise.

For such a blurry and ill-defined subject, it’s impressive how consistent the show feels for its duration. Smith’s nervy, almost fractious energy is a wonderful constant, even when presented with an audience of two. Never before have I seen a performer approach a nearly-empty house with such vigor. In truth, my greatest disappointment with this performance is that I never got to see how Smith would play off a full house. She is (fittingly and obviously) the greatest asset this show has, having cracked the comedian’s riddle of creating an obvious gulf of wit between her and the audience, whilst simultaneously closing it with an almost tactical show of real honesty and vulnerability.

This is perhaps the only time I’ve ever regretted that the jokey offer of a pint after the show was not capitalised upon, so enthralled I was with the sheer openness with which Smith presents herself. Even her dodgy guitar skills, though they open the show on a slightly jerky note, have their significance later. This is feel-good theatre, despite being based on one of the worst parts of romance.

This is a show which deserves far, far more than what I saw it receive. Ameé Smith has crafted a difficult and beautiful thing: a comedy show which thrives on universal truths, yet doesn’t claim to have any answers. And despite a few momentary stumbles, “Relax, it’s not about you” is exactly the kind of show that typifies the Edinburgh Fringe: optimistic, off-the-wall and unapologetically human. Ameé Smith isn’t making a show about you – but that doesn’t mean everyone shouldn’t see it.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 25 August)

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+3 Review: Paper Hearts the Musical (Underbelly Med Quad: 5-29 Aug: 18.40: 1hr 15mins)

“Potential to be a real best-seller”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

A musical about finding love in a bookshop sounds like pretty much all of my favourite things in one. And just like everyone’s favourite independent bookshop, the first thing that strikes me about Paper Hearts is how little space there is to move around in on stage.  Unfortunately in this case it doesn’t work in the group’s favour, and if they had been used to rehearsing in a larger space, the translation to this venue isn’t effective enough to overcome many of the obstacles faced by that challenge: the choreography looks clumsy, performers squeeze past each other when moving about and the musicians are a bit too dominant visually – it’s a shame that this is the lasting impression I have of this show rather than the artistic merits, of which there are many.

The story follows Atticus Smith (Adam Small) – a book store manager and hapless writer – who is determined to finish his novel, even though his store is very quickly going out of business and is set to be bought by a corporate giant. But of course, there’s a convenient young writers’ competition he could enter and win to save the day. So far, so so. Throw into the mix a difficult relationship with his father and a chance meeting with the consultant set to take over the bookshop and an intriguing plot unfurls.

What I particularly enjoyed about this show in terms of narrative are the clever parallels between Atticus’s own life and the characters in his book, and the relationship he as a writer has with those characters. Even though the book is set in Russia in the 1940s, Atticus channels his situation through his leading character and inadvertently ends up resolving his own problems.

From a performance perspective, bizarrely it’s the Russian scenes that come across as the most genuine and accomplished, and these are the most enjoyable to watch. Much of the rest of the performance, however, feels very rushed. From the opening scene where characters are introduced, to Atticus’s break-up with his girlfriend, meeting someone else, having a huge argument the next day and winning a writing competition, it all seems quite superficial. There are lots of lovely ideas in there, but, much like the stage, everything is a bit too crammed in.

Liam O’Rafferty’s music and lyrics are tight, with several great original songs. Hot is a fun and sassy number with great personality, Shame is a cutting and comedic look at the flaws of the two central characters, and title song Paper Hearts has a real West End ring to it. All songs featured within the Russian scenes have great folk authenticity, so musically this show has a lot going for it.

I’d love to see Paper Hearts come back as a longer, more developed piece, and performed in a different venue that gives it room to breathe. It has the potential to be a real best-seller.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 14 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: Gobsmacked! (Underbelly George Square,

“These guys should be selling out arenas…the best show I’ve ever seen in Edinburgh.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars:  Outstanding

With their own set and taking the stage in individual black and white outfits to reflect their own personalities, Gobsmacked! look every inch the “cool” a capella group, and their opening number – an energetic rendition of Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now – shows just how much they mean business.

The group’s arrangements – all by former Sons of Pitches star Jack Blume – are quite poppy by nature, allowing each member of the group to have their moment as lead vocalist, with plenty of supporting lines and balance, despite there being just seven members. Throughout the show there are blends and mash-ups aplenty, especially the closing medley, which somehow managed to link over 20 pop songs into one cohesive number, and every arrangement is just as rousing and unique as the last. This is a show that just has quality at every level.

Many a capella choirs these days claim to have slick choreography to accompany their singing, but few I’ve seen have come close to this group’s overall visual presentation with movement, drama and tableau so effortlessly working alongside their singing. In particular, the mash-up between Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy with Adele’s Rolling in the Deep depicts a relationship break-down, jealousy and attempts to move on in a perfect combination between flawless singing and creative staging.

It’s almost impossible for me to pick any standout moments, as the show is all so polished in wow-factor, but award-winning beatboxer Ball-Zee’s solo section midway through the performance left me genuinely gobsmacked for about ten minutes, and in a sea of up tempo numbers I can’t not mention the beautifully stripped back rendition of I Will Wait. If, midway through the show, I was worried that Gobsmacked! might be leaning a bit too much towards the pop-dance genre, this song went a long way to demonstrating the variety and depth of music that this group can more than capably deliver.

I suppose I should attempt to highlight areas of the performance that didn’t work as well, but the only very slight blemishes I noticed were that a couple of the performers seemed a little less flamboyant and stage-aware than their choir-mates (though we can’t all be divas), and it was a shame that some live vocal looping was used in a couple of the songs (though only the really keen observer would notice this). Otherwise, for me this show is as close to perfection as you can get.

After this performance Gobsmacked! are now my absolute favourite a capella group in town – these guys should be selling out arenas. I honestly think this is the best show I’ve ever seen in Edinburgh.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 14 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: Growing Pains (Underbelly, Cowgate: 5-28 Aug: 16.30: 1hr)

“Oozes a quality that is rare and valuable”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

There’s a lovely tradition at the Fringe whereby all companies performing at a certain venue are permitted “standby” tickets to other shows at that venue: once all paying ticket holders have been admitted, any empty seats are then up for grabs – if there are any. For this performance Underbelly companies didn’t just fill the few empty seats: staff were frantically laying out two extra rows at the back to cope with a level of demand I’ve never seen before. Within about 10 seconds of the performance starting, I could understand the hype.

As is so achingly trendy at the moment, Growing Pains is written like a performance poem, with rhyme and rhythm, ridiculously clever wordplay, and a lot of witticism. It’s brutal, honest and unflinching in its portrayal of a young man growing up on an estate in Salford and wanting to make it as an actor. Energy is red raw from the get go and you can tell this is going to be an intense and emotional hour.

Central character Tom introduces his friends, portraying each with clear physicality and accent, and we get to laugh at their banter and endeavours to get served at the local pub while underage. Later on we see those same friends grown-up, stuck in a rut and stifled in small-town mentality that Tom so desperately longs to break away from.

Tom Gill gives absolutely everything in this production – from emotive, heart-wrenching pleas to his dad, amusing turns as his Caribbean neighbour and a posture-perfect well-heeled yuppie, to more puns on London tube stations than you can count and a stripped back and haunting break-up scene with an ex-girlfriend: it really is a one man tour-de-force. For me, it’s 2016’s Johnny Bevan.

Oh, and it’s also a musical. With poetic lyricism that effortlessly floats in and out of song it only seems right to blend the two, and it just works. Not in a corny, musical theatre I’m-just-going-to-burst-into-song kind of way, but in a genuine expression of music being the only way for Tom to be able to communicate what’s going on in his head. It’s funny. moving, and incredibly well performed.

However, it’s not perfect – there are several odd little skips, jumps and glossings over within the narrative that could be made clearer or more cleverly interwoven without the need to go to a blackout – but everything about it oozes a quality that is rare and valuable and definitely worth buying a ticket to. Just ask anyone else doing a show at Underbelly.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 8 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

TES (Underbelly, George Square : 5 – 31 Aug : 13.15 : 1hr 15 mins)

“Fantastic… exactly what the Fringe is all about.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Tess of the D’urbervilles reimagined in modern times. With a male hero. Set on a Newcastle council estate. Performed by one person. Oh, and it’s performance poetry. What could possibly go wrong?

You’ve got to take your hat off to writer and performer Steve Larkin just for the idea. It sounds daft, but TES is actually a very compelling story, that interprets enough of the original to make it easy to follow, but without going overboard by trying to shoehorn in every last detail. It’s stylish, it’s quirky, and the issues covered are bang up to date for an audience in 2015.

The show follows the story of Joe Taggart, who, we find out, is a descendent of Lord Byron. As part of a special programme in his school (he’s 14 when the show starts), he gets assigned a new English teacher, the alluring Alice Prycer-Fox, who encourages him to write poetry. However, after a dramatic liaison with her, he finds himself in prison and years later is having to rebuild his life as “Terry” in Leeds. We see Terry’s rise in fortune as a performance poet, and how he develops a relationship with a girl he meets at a recruitment agency. Of course, as this is a Hardy adaptation there are more twists and turns, and an unfortunate ending, but it’s a gripping story and deftly delivered.

It’s written with a real sense of rhythm, and its poetic nature (though not overt) gives it a sense of being a fairytale and having a moral tale. Indeed, many cultural quips and comments on consumerist society are well-placed and go to show the level of intelligence and care with which this piece is constructed.

While the writing is powerful, one of the real strengths of this show is Larkin’s energy as a performer, and his ability to jump between characters and create moods and tension very quickly. He excels further in the sections where, as Terry, he performs his original performance poetry, even getting the audience involved to chant along some lines with him. Larkin is in his element in these sections and commands the stage and the audience’s attention.

My only criticism was that it seemed a little rough around the edges – there could have been starker contrasts between some of the characters, while I also would have liked a slightly more impactful climax. Overall though, a fantastic risk-taking offering, and to me this kind of show is exactly what the Fringe is all about.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 15 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED