Will Gompertz: Double Art History – The Sequel (Underbelly Bristo Square: Aug 19 – 25 : 15:35: 1hr)

“A fun hour.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

It’s a fairly uncontroversial opinion to say I like art. Art is pretty neat. Van Gogh, Edward Hopper and Monet have pride of place in my apartment, but as far as really knowing anything about art goes, I’m basically like if someone put a dog in a high school class. Will Gompertz, of Tate and Guardian fame, assures me that he can change that in an hour.

Double Art History – The Sequel is a straightforwardly constructed piece: a humorous lecture wherein Gompertz teaches the fundamentals to a crowd of mostly drunk Fringe goers, with a ‘big exam’ as the dramatic raison d’être. There aren’t many shows where I find myself holding a tiny pencil, wondering if a joke is going to be on the test – though, it’s not as distracting as one might think.

And, overall, it works. It works better than one might expect, and that’s not simply down to the demureness of Edinburgh’s day drinkers. Gompertz proves to be a compelling core for a one man show, and brings an energy that’s seldom seen on the Fringe stage. It’s difficult to describe: somewhere south of nervousness, east of smug, and altogether interpersonally compelling. Evidence of his knowledgeability is widely documented, and this show merely adds to the pile. The way he handles the material, the genuinely loving lilt of his voice when describing a form of expression he clearly holds dear to his heart. Whether or not you even like art, Will Gompertz probably likes it enough for the both of you.

And, to his credit, I like art a little more after Double Art History. There’s a wealth of material presented in the short hour, and it’s presented well. Gompertz’ approach is highly accessible, aided by the bare smattering of tech, and almost lulls you into a false sense of ignorant security. If you’re irritatingly curious like I am, you’re guaranteed to have your attention held.

However, this is a show that leans harder on the “lecture” side of its composition, as opposed to the “Fringe show” side. The theatrical elements feel more like artifice than fully integrated parts of the production, and whilst lectures are by no means bad, that visible separation sometimes proves genuinely jarring. Key moments of audience interaction felt as if they had no reason to be happening, other than a misplaced sense of theatrical convention. Whilst playing up the cartoonish theatricality of the whole thing is a boon for marketing, I often found myself wishing I could have just listened to Gompertz talk shop for an hour, rather than listen to setups involving an art teacher who doesn’t exist.

That’s not to say the show isn’t charming. It is, and aggressively so. Gompertz and his crew create an atmosphere where, whilst everything doesn’t go right, it’s not for lack of earnestness. There is a fundamental joy about art at the heart of this show, and it shines clearly.

Double Art History – The Sequel is a fun hour, sitting in the presence of someone who knows their field inside out. Whilst it’s not likely to get your pulse pounding, you might come away with a better appreciation for what it means to make art.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close  (Seen 20 August)

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It’s True It’s True It’s True (Underbelly Bristo Square: Aug 16-25: 13:00: 1 hr)

“A deliriously engaging hour that combines essential social commentary, historical document, and top-notch courtroom drama.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

The Edinburgh Fringe offers many delightful kinds of attractions one could find in few other places; food, drink, venues, performances, people, et cetera. Perhaps the most exciting of them all, as I was reminded while watching Breach Theatre’s It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, is ideas. This production, while also filled with outstanding craft from top to bottom, breathes life into one of the most singularly creative ideas this festival has to offer.

Directed by Billy Barrett, and ‘written’ by Barrett and Ellice Stevens, this show demands to be taken as an essential piece of theatre. I say ‘written,’ because the script is translated verbatim from the real-life transcripts of a 1612 trial in Rome. The trial in question concerned whether pompous socialite Agostino Tassi had raped budding painter Artemisia Gentileschi (who went on to garner wide praise, success, and notoriety later in her life), and here lies the first inspired idea within Barrett and Stevens’ project. The transcript, translated from Latin and Italian, is an utterly fascinating document, considering what it implies about the sensibilities of the time surrounding status, sexuality, truth, lies, legacy, misogyny, and more. Of course, without needing to labor the point at all, Breach Theatre’s piece makes it quite clear that the conversations spoken back then about consent, assault, and accusations of unacceptable male behavior are hauntingly similar to ones the modern world has faced with increasing frequency over the last few years. One may find it at times difficult to believe the verbatim transcripts could include parallels so blatant as the moments where Tassi, arrogant and dismissive of the proceedings through and through, directly echoes the word of infamously accused men: “she’s not my type,” “she was asking for it,” “she’s a wh*re anyway,” and so on.

To bring these disarming moments to life, Barrett has assembled a blisteringly talented trio of actors, all of whom multi-role as various judges and testifiers, and all of whom are remarkably capable of stealing a scene. Sophie Steer, as Artemisia herself, is captivating from start to finish; her Artemisia is withdrawn at times, aggressive in others, defensive when she needs to be and just the right amount of multifaceted. Kathryn Bond, who plays numerous roles but most notably the Gentileschi house’s maid Tuzia, has an electric way of performing, so that she achieves exciting, lightning-fast delivery while also mining both pathos and hilarity in the process. But it is Harriet Webb, playing Tassi with a frighteningly familiar swagger, who edges out the top spot among the three. The smarm, threat, and cunning Webb pours into her depiction of Tassi make for an uncomfortably amusing concoction; some ought to beware, however, the searing condemnation of a certain ‘yah’ accent that gets thoroughly skewered as a sonic ‘red flag.’ Overall, though Webb’s performance captivated me the most, all three performers deserve immense credit for giving this piece an electric energy and impressive momentum.

Certain choices sporadically let this momentum down, however. The show is intermittently interrupted by musical transitions, which move the story along through the seven-month trial. The first thing one might notice is that a few of these simply take so long that the pace drops noticeably; a confounding design considering the actors are clearly in place and ready to leap back into the fray, but stay still waiting for the roaring punk interludes to wrap up. The spirit of the musical choices is very understandable — Breach clearly means to imbue the show with the snarling ferocity of the mostly female punk bands they sample. However, these songs drag the viewer out of the 1612 setting perhaps a little too far, especially considering they often come after relatively tame developments in the story. Hearing Tuzia describe Artemisia’s painting habits does not quite build up the energy to warrant a face-melting scream directly afterwards, and the effect is considerably less compelling than the many brilliant elements working so well elsewhere onstage.

The other place that could use some rethinking is the ending; after the mortifying interrogation of Artemisia is finished, the play changes tack into some surreal territory which does not quite hold together with the story that proceeds it or indeed to the disjointed gig-theatre-esque grand finale. This finale, though rousing, seems rather forced, with neither the songs sung nor the visuals introduced feeling relevant to the play’s eminently laudable initial concept. 

And to reiterate, the concept is unquestionably laudable. It’s True, It’s True, It’s True is a deliriously engaging hour that combines essential social commentary, a fascinating historical document, and the nail-biting tension of a top-notch courtroom drama. I was reminded repeatedly of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1960 film La vérité, a similarly fascinating dramatization of a similar trial, albeit with a multifaceted woman (played by Brigitte Bardot) on trial instead. Both have deeply nuanced and intelligent means of uncovering bitter truths about the way women are treated both by men and by the legal system, plus some tremendous female performances. La vérité shocks one today because its depiction of society feels unsettlingly relevant considering it was made 60 years ago; the effect of It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, then, considering its dialogue was initially spoken over 400 years ago, is downright infuriating. Credit to Breach Theatre for delivering such a play, for a second round at Fringe, with all the maddening ferocity this subject provokes, and then some. 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

 

Foil, Arms and Hog – Swines (Underbelly, Bristo Square: Aug 18-25 : 21:00: 1hr)

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“A tremendously talented bunch who made hard comedy look easy.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

I don’t think I’d ever been to see a Fringe show solo. I usually meet up with pals or drag my children. However, on Saturday, I thought I’d see what solo flying was like and trotted along to the McEwen Hall to see Foil, Arms and Hog.

My only experience of them had been via their cult YouTube clips being beamed into my social media feed from time to time – their ‘’Englishman plays Risk’’ and ‘’Brexit: Divorce’’ being the obvious examples. Beyond that I didn’t know too much about them: there were three of them. I didn’t understand the name. They were Irish. They went to University College Dublin. That was it. My lack of knowledge says more about me than them.

I suppose the old grey matter should have started zinging when I read the words ‘McEwen Hall’. This is one of the biggest venues at the Fringe. It was sold out. There must have been the best part of 1,000 people in the audience. Clearly these guys have a serious following and serious game.

Whilst many of you will have come across them via YouTube, they are a different proposition live and – in my view – a better proposition live. Go!

The first ten minutes were gloriously anarchic as the trio romped around the audience getting people involved in various ways: looking in people’s shopping bags, trying on coats, inspecting tickets etc.

It all looked very easy. As with everything, it clearly comes from months and years of practice. You only get that rapport with each other, the quickness of mind, the badinage, the ability to change things up and riff off each other through knowing each other inside out.

In crowd work, it is cheap and easy to mock the audience. Too many comedians do that. Some turn it into their entire act (and some reviewers lap it up. It is like giving the school bully an A grade). Foil, Arms and Hog have fun with their audience but try to make them co-stars of the show rather than the butt of a joke: that involves kindness, confidence and talent. Carmen and Rory – the two audience members who became stars – had a bit of gentle leg pulling but it was all done in the best of humours.

They then break into a series of sketches and songs all of which were clever, witty and laugh out loud funny.  Whilst I’ve bemoaned elsewhere the dreary politics of most comics at the Fringe their Brexit Song ‘’It’s hard to break free from a union’’ was both extremely funny and technically accomplished. If you are going to joke about politics at least try to do something different and witty: these guys certainly did. Their ‘’Guidelines’’ sketch had me in stitches. There was innuendo there but no smut. Again, that takes cleverness and a deft hand.

Each sketch worked well and covered a range of talents – musicianship, clever lyrics, extensive mime and more besides. The sketches ranged across many spheres: a gloriously hammy actor given a secret mission; Ludwig van Beethoven entering a talent show; a recurring stag do sketch; and a brilliant, almost indescribable mime show. My personal highlight was the sheer joy the three actors had particularly when they tried to corpse each other. I enjoyed them spinning off script and teasing each other throughout.

I liked all three of them enormously and did so even more when they bumped into the crowd on the way to the bar and shook everyone’s hand thanking them for coming along. They seemed to enjoy it as much as the fans. They are a tremendously talented bunch who made hard comedy look easy. This was the sort of humour that your teenage nephew would enjoy but also your mother-in-law. That, again, is quite something.

Whenever anyone views a sketch show they naturally begin to compare to the great sketch shows of the past and that terrifying word ‘’Python’’ begins to linger in one’s mind. Many shows are called Python-esque when they are really nothing of the sort. Foil, Arms and Hog are pythonesque in their inventiveness, their cleverness, their interplay and their use of so many different comic tools. I could have watched another hour. A must see.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Rob Marrs (Seen 17 August)

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Don’t Mess with the Dummies (Underbelly Bristo Square: Aug 20-25 : 11:20 : 1hr)

“Done with skill, imagination and a real understanding of what kids love.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Having started out Fringe adventures with the Splash Test Dummies we thought we’d visit the other act from the Dummies Corp ‘’Don’t Mess with the Dummies’. My daughter had been asking to see the ‘’girl dummies’’ since we had left the first show so it was time… largely to keep the last vestiges of my parental sanity intact.

The show starts out with three young explorers in a jungle. Over the course of an hour they try to read a map, pitch a tent, get into sleeping bags and eat a banana. That makes it sound routine it is anything but.

It was impossible not to warm to them. Their interplay and comic timing were spot on. The characterisations were very good and in large parts extremely funny. There was essentially no dialogue – a few words here and there – and they mostly communicated in funny noises. That is no mean feat over an hour and it all made sense.

Dummies Corp productions are an assault to the senses which bring together clowning, acrobatics, slapstick and much more besides: skipping ropes, puppetry, hula hoops, silly string, juggling and log-rolling. My eldest had one of the Dummies come up to her and throw popcorn in her mouth (don’t ask) whilst both of them were up and dancing in the aisles at various points.

It really is wonderful watching these shows with children – at one point, the Dummies perform the old gag of one person hiding behind a screen to make it look like another person has an extremely long arm. Both my kids were asking how they did it, how the lady had such a long arm. Others around us were prodding their parents and asking the same question. I think the world is probably a better place believing in that sort of stuff.

My personal highlight was the ‘Lion Sleeps tonight’ sketch with the sleeping bags. It was both inspired and hysterical. Slightly jaded and underslept 37-year-olds probably aren’t the target market for the gag but it really was very funny. I loved how they were in amongst the crowd a lot trying to involve the children. I loved the references throughout: nowhere else in the Fringe will acts perform to Mozart and to 2Unlimited.

One thing I particularly liked was that it was three women doing it. All too often these sorts of shows are all-male or majority male. It was great for everyone in the audience to see three hilarious women doing it. My eldest daughter – who adored the Splash Test Dummies – said she preferred this show because it was girls doing the funny stuff. That’s not a small thing. Indeed, all things considered, it is a pretty big one. My youngest – who is probably at the very bottom end of sitting through an hour – loved it.

It is impossible to watch Dummy Corp acts without a smile on your face. It is just good ol’ fashioned family fun but done with skill, imagination and a real understanding of what kids love. More please.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Rob Marrs (Seen 17 August)

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Ian Smith: Half-Life (Underbelly Bristo Square : Aug 4-11, 13-25 : 17:15 : 1hr)

“Punchy and delightful.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Nae Bad

As far as conversation starters go, Chernobyl isn’t exactly a trip down gumdrop lane. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to talk about, but generally speaking you’re not gonna squeeze a lot of laughs out of decay rates and radiation sickness. There are, of course, exceptions which prove rules like that – and Ian Smith is one of them.

As with any stand-up, we start with what the audience first sees: the persona. Smith’s stage manner is at once very familiar, yet just odd and unexpected enough to differentiate him from the droves of high-energy, earnest comedians who crowd the clubs each Fringe. There is a real genuineness to Smith’s performance -whilst completely unafraid to throw himself into whatever the set demands, there is nevertheless a vulnerability to his delivery. A subtle-but-not-unwelcome shakiness as he dismounts a punchline, as if he can’t believe he’s doing stand up. It goes a long way to closing the gap between performer and audience, though in Underbelly’s “intimate” Buttercup venue, this gap is certainly more metaphorical than physical.

The set itself? Comedy uranium. If you thought the effects of radiation were unpredictable, Smith has something coming for you: it’s functionally impossible to tell exactly what the slant of the next joke will be, or where a setup is going to lead. You can try and guess what’s coming before wit hits the lips – but prepare thoroughly for disappointment.

It’s clear from the outset that Smith thrives in the limelight, his best material comes when the pressure’s off: skated in at the end of another joke, or a quick aside away from the mic. There’s an insistent wit bubbling under the lid of Half-Life, and adds an almost mischievous edge to a set whose main quality is sheer affability. It’s a quixotic, apolitical journey through the trials and tribulations of a man who, ultimately, just wants to get through to the other end with all his limbs attached. In a post-Carlin, post-Brexit comedy landscape, that’s rarer than might be hoped.

Watching Ian Smith onstage is like watching a man being interrupted by himself, and it’s where he’s strongest. When he’s pulling suddenly off the expected course, the exits are exhilarating. However, that also plays in the other direction: when a joke outstays its welcome, the performance really feels the drag. Smith sometimes seems hesitant to take his laughs and run, and that focus on bleeding every possible laugh has a palpable effect on his flow. Though consistently high energy, Half-Life wasn’t consistently high confidence, and that’s a genuine shame: his material is punchy and delightful, and far more endearing than even Smith himself seems to believe.

Even the use of powerpoint, an oft-loathed enemy of mine, was integrated with consistent quirk and surprising seamlessness. The reality created by Half-Life – full of pigeons doing weird things and OAP scrabble tournaments – is strongly cohesive and only extended by Smith’s clever use of tech. In all, it creates the sense of a complete show: the quintessential Fringe experience of disappearing into some alternate world for an hour, and emerging Alice-esque after what seems moments. Nothing which is not purposefully highlighted becomes visible, and it’s that kind of production sleight-of-hand which marks a certain amount of care behind the scenes.

The bottom line? Ian Smith is an archetypical Fringe performer with an atypical wit, and well worth your time. It might be named after a meltdown, but Half-Life glows.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 5 August)

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Splash Test Dummies (Underbelly Circus Hub on the Meadows : Aug 3-11, 13-18, 20-24: 13:00 : 1hr)

“You won’t see a funnier, more joyous, more riotous, or more uplifting show this Fringe.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

Reams of mum-blogs (dad-blogs too, but the mums are winning in terms of overwhelming numbers) will give chapter and verse on how parenthood changes you. Parenthood has certainly changed how I approach the Fringe. In the old days, I actively looked forward to the 5am finishes in clubs. Now I mostly worry whether or not the fireworks will wake the kids.

It also changes how you consume the Fringe. Gone, largely, are the late night comics. The earnest, right-on types making other earnest, right-on types laugh are a thing of the past (no great shame). The late night smut merchants are done too. I don’t care what anyone says: if you don’t laugh at rude songs you are doing life wrong.

But whilst some of the Festival no longer is for you, a whole new side opens up. So I took my nephew (9) and my eldest daughter (5) along to the Splash Test Dummies. I will confess that we did so because my daughter liked their poster.

What a choice. I may start getting her to pick my shows purely on this basis. Splash Test Dummies was quite brilliant. It was everything a good Festival show should be. It had a bit of everything: acrobatics, unicycles, Cirque du Soleil-style gymnastics, running gags, good ol’ fashioned clowning, magic, puppetry, and slapstick galore. I laughed until I was hoarse. My nephew at numerous points said he was ”dying with laughter”. I may as well have not bothered getting my daughter a seat as she spent much of it standing in front of it clapping or laughing with glee.

The actors don’t so much breach the fourth wall but obliterate it. At one point, in a hilarious moment based around the Baywatch theme song, one of the three actors climbed through the crowd, stood on my daughter’s chair and bounced up and down. Later a man nearby had a (very sweaty) Dummy on his lap being hugged.

The ‘Rubber Duckie’ song was glorious as was the sketch with ping pong balls. A relatively simple magic trick taken to a whole new level. It may have been puerile but that’s the whole dang point. I laughed like a drain, as did my young duo.

There are water pistols, noodles, skeleton fights, skipping on unicycles and bubbles pumping out over you. The Dummies fire ping pong balls at you. It is an assault on your senses from before you even enter the tent.

All of this sounds easy but being this funny, this physical under lights for an hour is hard yakka in anyone’s money. More than that it isn’t easy. It is hard and the three Dummies clearly had bucketloads of talent and skill.

The three actors may look like they are clowning around but they do some seriously difficult stuff. Synchronised swimming on unicycles took the breath away as did some work with large metal rings. To make it all look so effortless is quite a skill. To do it and infuse it with comedy… well, it deserves the applause it got.

Apparently in reviews you should always give something critical lest readers think you are some professional fluffer or on the payroll. My one minor quibble – and this is true of almost every kid’s show – is that anything marketed for 5+ probably would be super if it were 45 minutes/50 minutes rather than an hour. I’m not sure what could be cut down or cut out but a few kids did start getting a little restless. Mine didn’t but I did notice a few around me beginning to turn. That though is universal and shouldn’t be held against the three magnificent Dummies: as I looked around at the end, the audience was grinning. The sort of grinning we don’t have enough of in life.

The Dummies have thought hard about how to entertain us and, importantly, our children. Even more than that, they delivered relentlessly. You won’t see a funnier, more joyous, more riotous, or more uplifting show this Fringe. My daughter spent the rest of the day pretending to be a Splash Test Dummy. If you’ve got kids, go. If you haven’t, borrow one from a friend. If you can’t do that, go along yourself. You’ll have a ball. I did as did my youngsters.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Rob Marrs (Seen 3 August)

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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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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED