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: Hot Brown Honey (Assembly Roxy, 5 Aug – 28 Aug : 20:20 : 1hr)

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“Gleefully challenges stereotypes of sex and race with a full grin, bared chest and raised middle finger.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars Outstanding

I sat for some time before writing this review trying to think of an introduction which best captured what I thought of Hot Brown Honey. But the truth is, there’s not much else which can compare to the bombastic gut punch of a burlesque show Assembly Roxy has somehow managed to contain inside their theatre. From the second that the glass-panelled hive lights roar to life, this show is a nonstop ride that has the audience welded to their seats.

Hosted by unapologetically badass MC Kim “Busty Beatz” Bowers, Hot Brown Honey is a raucously funny and entertaining trip through acrobatics, beatboxing, song, dance and everything in between. But don’t be fooled – despite considerable comedy thrills, it never strays from what makes it so compelling: a show which not only celebrates the power and complex femininity of women of colour, but gleefully challenges stereotypes of sex and race with a full grin, bared chest and raised middle finger.

To talk too much about the acts would lessen their impact, but it cannot be said enough that each segment of performance was distinct, feverishly well executed and consistently jaw dropping. Every single honey from this hive is impressive enough to warrant their own review, let alone packing every single one into a single critique. Of course, for those who aren’t fans of audience participation, proceed with tentative caution: a show like this one demands to spill out into the aisles, to surprising and hilarious results.

The honeycomb that links up this show, however, is both more subtle and infinitely more loud than the performers themselves. There are West End shows that could learn things from the tech team behind the burlesque extravaganza. The sync between every technical element and the behaviour of the set is nothing short of breathtaking, for those who can bear to concentrate on anything but the inspired spectacle going on centre stage.

But what makes Hot Brown Honey such an outstanding show goes beyond its strength in immediacy. When the applause stops and the doors are open, that doesn’t mean the show is over: the messages, ethos and enthusiasm for equality, sexuality and sensuality stick around far after the day is done. As a piece of burlesque, Hot Brown Honey is outstanding simply by merit of its performance. But as a complete show, its greatest triumph is that it fully achieves the vision set out by creators Bowers, Lisa Fa’alafi and Candy B: not simply social activism masquerading as entertainment, but a genuinely thought provoking thrill which, at least personally, will open the eyes of many to any issue they never even know existed.

If you like your shows sexy, superbly skillful and socially conscious, you cannot miss Hot Brown Honey this Fringe. It’s a rare show indeed.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 6 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: A Lady’s Guide to the Art of Being a Wingman (Gilded Balloon: 4-28 Aug: 23.30: 1hr)

“Performed with great energy… the trio really can sing”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

This show sees three young Australian women in suits and huge pink beehive wigs attempt to adopt the traditionally male “wing man” mentality to get them laid on a night out. To assist them in their farcical mission they follow the steps of a recorded self-help manual, and a lot of pop songs.

Of course it’s all a bit ridiculous, but it’s a (fairly) light-hearted comedy show that doesn’t take itself too seriously. However, it took me 10 minutes or so to work out what was going on to start with, as the show opens quite frantically with a lot of attitude and numerous snippets of well-known pop songs, all sung by the girls live.

Once the piece settles down it becomes much more enjoyable, and I was able to appreciate more of the artistic merit behind it. Three interesting characters emerge, each representing women with different levels of sexual confidence and experience, and we follow their plight through every step of their night.

At every juncture the girls burst into song, each of these being a well-known pop-song with lyrics cleverly and subtly adapted to suit the message. They are performed with great energy, and the trio really can sing, making the whole experience infinitely more enjoyable than having to sit through seemingly endless karaoke car crashes. The accompanying choreography is slick and performed with pizzazz, so on the whole, the actual performance element ticks almost all the boxes.

The surprising a capella rendition of Imogen Heap’s Hide & Seek towards the end is the best showcase of just how talented the girls are as vocalists, even if this number seems a little out of place among the rampant and upbeat pop numbers throughout the rest of it.

I was a bit disappointed in the over-reliance on the recorded advice, and would have preferred a more creative technique to keep the action on track and flowing from one section to the next. A little more focus on control and less mayhem at the beginning of the piece would also make it seem more professional and easier to engage with from the off.

This show won’t be to everyone’s taste – it’s loud, unapologetic and very fast-paced. But it is funny, full of life and contains a surprising amount of depth, particularly towards the end.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 4 August)

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Aunty Donna (Gilded Balloon, 5 – 31 Aug : 22.00 : 1hr)

“An all guns blazing comedy rampage”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

The first thing that hits you about Australian comedy troupe Aunty Donna is undoubtedly their energy. This is a one hour, all guns blazing comedy rampage, with never a dull moment. Between the three of them, they caper around as an array of characters, delivering one of the slickest sketch shows I’ve ever seen. Each section melts into the next seamlessly, and it’s a testament to the performers’ dedication that it flows so naturally.

I particularly enjoyed the lip-synching to various songs, that had clearly been very well rehearsed and were delivered with aplomb. During an early mime sequence to a very loud track, one audience member gets pointed at whenever the word “no” is sung – at one stage, several times in quick succession – and the build up and dramatic focus in this section had the audience in stitches.

Throughout there’s a great balance between longer, more developed sequences and a few one liners, including a simple section of reading out “texts from your parents”. My favourite sketch featured someone who “completely misread the situation”, leaning in for a kiss when it totally wasn’t appropriate. With no dialogue, just a scene title and some great physicality, they delivered a simple and very funny moment.

For an Australian group performing the the UK, there were a number of risks taken in making fun of some wonderfully British stereotypes. From our penchant for queuing, to chip butties and even reference to Tottenham Hotspur playing cricket, they strike a great balance between topical humour, without crossing the line into offensive territory. This is a show that is well thought-out and has been perfectly targeted to this market.

In the final third of the performance the group start to reference their own jokes from earlier on, and thankfully, as they had been well-written and delivered, it showed an added layer of intelligence and thought. At no point was it gratuitous though, every moment was carefully selected and well weaved in, and helped tie the piece together into a cohesive performance.

However, for me this show was at times a bit too loud and too full on, and I would have preferred more contrast and subtlety in some of the sketches. In saying that, Aunty Donna’s style is very much their style, and on the whole it delivers laughs aplenty. If you want a loud, high energy, fast paced and at times just a bit weird sketch show, this one is definitely for you.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 20 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

A Storm in a D Cup (Assembly Roxy: 5-30 Aug. 21.30, 1hr)

“Squirmishly enjoyable”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Amelia Ryan’s likeability is apparent before she even makes it to the stage. Fighting with the back cloths, she finally emerges from underneath the drapery, glass in hand, wrapped in a towel and wearing odd socks. Off to a cracking start.

She goes on to tell us how the show is made up from 100% true stories and very quickly reveals one of her family not-so-secrets. This is interspersed with a very cleverly re-lyriced version of What’s Going On?, and immediately the tone is established as an open-book cabaret show that’s funny and free.

Naturally it’s not long before she first calls an audience member to the stage for assistance. It’s clear she’s well practised at this, and while she doesn’t always get what she wants, she knows when she’s beaten and swiftly moves on rather than making a scene. Thankfully ours was quite an obliging crowd, though hilarity ensued when she unknowingly attempted to coerce a teenager on stage to help her reenact an anecdote from her days of being an exotic dancer. Luckily, he owned up and she moved on…

While many cabaret shows draw on the artist’s life story for creative inspiration, one does often wonder how much mileage that has, and what their next show might look like if this one is so self-effusive. A Storm in a D Cup is somewhat guilty of this, but Ryan points out how this show also aims to be educational for others in terms of how to avoid the “storms” she’s weathered. A bit thin, but pleasant all the same.

One of the most enjoyable moments was Ryan’s peculiar rendition of the Cell Block Tango from Chicago. For this she borrows three new audience members to keep rhythm for her, while she flaunts about sharing stories of former lovers, again, adapting lyrics cleverly to fit the song. Watching three slightly uncomfortable people trying not to be distracted while keeping rhythm was squirmishly enjoyable.

While Ryan’s storytelling and likeability were spot on and thoroughly engaging, at times I felt let down by her singing voice, which seemed to lack punch in the upper register. While closing number As We Stumble Along played to her strengths in personality, a huskier, more soulful approach to some of the songs I feel would have been more powerful.

Overall this show was heaps of fun. You’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next, but absolutely worth the ride.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin  (Seen 9 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

The Orchid and the Crow (Assembly Roxy, 6-30 Aug : 16.10 : 1hr 15 mins)

“Utterly compelling”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

It’s becoming an alarming trend that there’s one show every year that I see in the opening weekend in Assembly Roxy Downstairs that leaves a bit of an emotional mess. Last year it was Mary Lou Quinlan’s The God Box, this year it is The Orchid and the Crow.

One of the great things about my job is that sometimes you turn up at a theatre and have no idea what to expect at all. And when Daniel Tobias slightly awkwardly walked on stage delivered a few questionable funny lines, picked up a guitar and started performing a rock song (not my personal taste), I thought it was going to be a hard slog. However, after a dodgy first few minutes it turned into the sort of show where one’s cup floweth over with emotion.

To put it bluntly – this is one man’s deeply honest cancer survival story, which also explores his identity as a non-Jewish Jew and the stories we tell each other “just because”. It’s frank, it’s personal, and it’s incredibly well-delivered.

Tobias starts the show, with a discussion of his atheist Jewish (yes, you read that correctly) identity, admitting how is family were “crispy fried bacon Jews”, before giving a potted Biblical history of Abraham. He then sang the hilarious Show Me You Love Me, which was about circumcision. Yes, you read that correctly too.

There were a few songs scattered throughout the performance, and while I wasn’t particularly mad on Tobias’s singing, the recitative in Italian describing the operation he had to remove his tumour was absolutely mind-blowing. Performed while wearing nothing but a surgical gown and with the English lyrics projected on screen, it was a hard-hitting yet beautifully delivered account of his toughest moment and was the absolute highlight of the performance.

Tobias’s storytelling is utterly captivating without being overly theatrical or self-indulgent. He knows how to deliver highs and lows, pace and pause. Being a cancer survivor he can also tell the story without getting caught up in the emotion, but deliver facts and anecdotes clearly and with conviction.

The show has some gloriously comic moments and these are perfectly balanced with the hard-hitting and emotive messages. It’s not just a story, it’s a well-developed and impressive full theatrical piece, well worth a watch. Bring tissues.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin  (Seen 9 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Nailed It! (Assembly Roxy, 7-11, 14-17 Aug : 20.15 : 1hr)

“They did indeed “nail it””

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

To describe Nailed It! makes it sound quite basic: two guys; one singer; one pianist; a collection of gloriously lyrical tunes; and fabulous sparkly jacket. But for Fringe debut act Mackenzie-Spencer and Strano this was a masterclass in getting all the basics of cabaret spot in. They did indeed “nail it”.

Andrew Strano’s voice is uncompromisingly musical theatre, and the songs composed with partner in crime Loclan Mackenzie-Spencer more than complement his personality and style. While not a particularly unique voice, he has a fantastic range and used his instrument to bring a full spectrum of emotion and empathy to each number.

With comical tunes covering topics such as the “birds and bees” and having intimate relations with one’s twin sister(!), to a beautiful touching number about relationships, the pair’s songwriting talent is simply wonderful. Nailed It! is comprised exclusively of original songs, all of which could have featured in the latest off-Broadway hit musical.

What makes this show really special though, is the perfect blend of professionalism and fragility on display. It is clearly solid and well rehearsed musically, but with the anecdotes in between Strano showed a real vulnerability and honesty in his imperfections, which made him incredibly likeable.

Special mention should also go to Mackenzie-Spencer’s seemingly virtuosic keyboard playing, deftly belting out complex melodies, all the while making it seem inhumanly simple. His quieter persona delightfully balanced Strano’s more extroverted stage presence and they were clearly very at ease with each other.

One worry many of us face when attending cabaret shows is around audience interaction. Are they going to pick on me? Fortunately Strano makes the audience feel so comfortable that those fears are almost immediately allayed. Questions are asked of the audience in general, and both performers dealt well with the random responses they received (there’s always one…) and seamlessly wove them into the next song as if it were all planned without seeming overly choreographed.

If I had one criticism, and this is very much down to personal preference, it is that theatrically I would have liked to have seen a few more risks taken. While the songs covered some fairly close-to-the-line topics, what was missing to make this show really unforgettable was something a bit out of the box, a real wow factor. However, next year, when these guys come back (which they absolutely must), it will be with a sure-fire five star show.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin  (Seen 7 August)

Visit the Assembly Roxy archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED