The Understudies (Bedlam: 13-19th Aug: 14:00: 60 mins)

“Fantastic creativity under pressure”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

There’s a very laid-back feel to The Understudies as they take to the stage dressed with a Breakfast Club vibe. Indeed, it’s quite a pleasing difference to the high octane energy of some other groups out there, and the introduction to the troupe and process of selecting a show title from audience suggestions is very personable, winning the audience over straight away.

It takes a special kind of person to be able to get up and improvise a show to a room full of strangers – moreso when there’s singing involved. The group opening number is a chance for each player to have their moment in creating a verse of the ditty on the spot, and it’s a positive start as to what to expect from the rest of the show – even though it’s disappointing this is one of precious few occasions that all players appear on stage together to demonstrate their prowess as a company.

Particularly amusing elements throughout the show are when two players are mid conversation in a scene, and MD Sam Coade just starts playing, forcing one of the players to begin a song about whatever they were talking about. Indeed, the strength of the Understudies is in the individual players themselves who display fantastic creativity under pressure and an ability to commit to their personal stories throughout.

In saying that, what holds this troupe back is their cohesion as a group – in this performance the players seemed to contradict each other or get too bogged down in their own storylines, which led to a lot of loose ends, changes in direction, and an almost competitive rather than collaborative feel. Indeed, at points there was a reticence from some players to jump on stage and save their counterparts at difficult moments, rather than relish in the opportunity to create more fun. There were some attempts at backing dancing and vocals to create more depth and variety in the numbers, and it’s a shame these never came to very much.

The Understudies is a good fun show packed with all the giggles you would expect from a completely improvised musical. It lacks the professional edge of some of the other companies out there doing similar things, but a good value show all the same – there are far worse things you could do with your afternoon.

 

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 14 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

The Bristol Suspensions: Love Aca-tually (theSpace Triplex: 13-25 Aug: 16:00: 50 mins)

“A group at the top of their game”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Th Bristol Suspensions have been making waves on the a capella circuit in recent years, and having only formed four years ago, their rise to the top league has been remarkable. In Love Aca-tually they show us why.

Under Musical Director Eleanor Leaper’s leadership, the group display a stunning range of styles, mixing and layering, with their mashups being a real highlight in seamless blending from one song to another. The intricacy of their constantly-changing arrangements is something to behold as there’s always so much going on within one song to keep interest and wow-factor. There’s a quality and depth to these arrangements that really catches the ear.

In saying that, it feels like it takes the group a few songs to really get going performance-wise, and it’s only in Power (featuring breath-taking lead vocals by Leaper herself), that they really start to perform with the swagger and panache of a group at the top of their game. It would be great to see them truly ‘bring it’ from note one, song one.

For a show themed around the film Love Actually, the setlist is somewhat surprising – featuring interpretations of songs originally by artists such as Foo Fighters and Coheed & Cambria, as well as a Reggaeton medley and a rap medley. While I applaud the diversity of musical influences used to create this show (and indeed the creative arrangements in each case), a slightly more ‘on brand’ setlist would give a greater sense of completeness and cohesion to the performance.

What’s pleasing about this group, too, is the inventiveness and risks taken with choreography to create a visual drama that matches the stunning vocals. Rarely are the singers still for long and the performance as a whole feels like a fully staged show, making best use of the thrust stage, elevating the Bristol Suspensions above groups who are content with more simple staging.

As you’d expected from a much-plaudited group, it’s hard to spot a note wrong anywhere. There are moments, though, when lead vocals are overpowered by the backing singers, so perhaps there’s a little bit more balancing to be done, but in all other respects, this is a group that can clearly do it all with a fantastic display of range and dynamism. Aca-mazing.

 

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 13 August)

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A Very Brexit Musical (La Belle Angele: 2-26 Aug: 17:00: 60 mins)

“Freddie Raymond as Joris Bohnson impresses with scene-stealing buffoonery, powerful vocals and a shining stage presence”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

It’s no surprise to see many Brexit-themed shows at the Fringe this year, and A Very Brexit Musical is a newly developed work from students at Robinson College, Cambridge. While for any student group it’s a tremendous achievement to start from scratch to compose, write, produce and bring to Edinburgh an hour-long musical, the end result in this case, leaves a little to be desired.

To begin with, the narrative of this show is about as convincing as the argument for Brexit itself – painfully thin. Journalist at the Maily Dail, Peter (Rory Russell), is caught between wanting to please his editor, Roland (Will Debnam), and office crush, Jen (Emily Webster), by producing pro-brexit propaganda articles, while staying true to his own values – and potentially losing his job and lover in the process. As a set-up it’s a pleasing way into the political argument, but in reality, the development of this storyline (and characters within it) is so limited and lost in amongst the other stage capers that it almost becomes worthless.

Many of the key political figures surrounding the vote are characterised and given scenes and ditties, though few of these add anything to the artistic merit of the piece, other than being somewhat amusing. Figel Narage and Joris Bohnson (no points for guessing which real-life people these characters are based on) seem to be constantly trying to meet on the down-low to sing bad-guy songs, Cavid Dameron bemoans not knowing what to do, and Mheresa Tay positions herself as the sexy bad girl perfectly placed to take over as the leader of the party. Were this production a Brexit cabaret, such interpretations and stand-alone songs would make for witty entertainment, but in the context of a narrative musical, it’s all very disjointed and seemingly thrown-together for the sake of it.

Overall the score is pretty good – there’s some nice variety from tune to tune, though lyrics could pack more punch and help drive the narrative. There are also some impressive attempts at choreography, including an unexpected tap routine, and while not everyone in the cast is a natural dancer, movement sequences are delivered with enough panache to be enjoyable.

In terms of performance it’s Freddie Raymond as Joris Bohnson who impresses most, with scene-stealing buffoonery, powerful vocals and a shining stage presence. Jessica Philips turns in a sassy and controlled performance as Mheresa Tay, while Will Debnam also elicits several chuckles as Maily Dail editor, Roland.

Overall, this is quite a fun show if you’re not expecting anything too deep or intelligent from it, but given its lack of convincing narrative, purpose or call to action, unfortunately, for me, it’s uninspiring.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 11 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George (theSpace @ Surgeons’ Hall: 3-11 Aug: 16:35: 45 mins)

“Sings with the integrity of a story that comes from the heart”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

“Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George” – those immortal lines from Shakespeare’s Henry V – where the title character rouses his troops into the defence of what they hold dear. And what an apt title for this play – which sees a group of eight British Muslim school girls in East London attempt to mount a production of the bard’s classic saga, while defending their right to do so. Yes, this is a politically charged play.

In the opening scenes the group struggle with normal teenage girl problems of agreeing with each other and putting aside their petty quibbles to get the show performance-ready – all of which comes with the irreverent comedy young people so unashamedly excel at. The glimpses of ego and creative differences begin to tease out the individual characters in the company, though it’s a shame these aren’t developed further.

Then the bombshell drops. Letters are distributed to Muslim households in the neighbourhood, informing them all to prepare for the vicious ‘Punish a Muslim Day’. With the content of these letters taken directly from the abusive vitriol spewed during that fateful event just a few months ago, it’s a poignant and sobering moment to hear the threats read aloud and immediately responded to.

Naturally, the tension within the performance goes up several notches, as families start to keep the girls home from rehearsal, their personal safety is put at risk, and, of course, the performance date draws closer. What follows is a touching display of leadership and courage where the girls somehow find the strength to continue despite all the barriers. Not only is this production an example of a disenfranchised group of people overcoming a huge danger to stand up for who they are and their basic human right to exist, but also of young women banding together and putting aside their differences to achieve that end – so on both counts it is heartening and uplifting. It’s also performed with all the confidence and pride one would expect from the company who devised this show themselves, and it sings with the integrity of a story that comes from the heart.

Yes, the script is a little fudged and, at times, twee – the ending in particular lacks the killer punch to make it truly outstanding – and yes, subtlety and depth of acting is sometimes lacking, but considering the oldest of these girls is just 17, what they present is an impressive feat. This is a vital and urgent production that deserves to be developed further and toured widely. I sincerely hope this isn’t the last we see of it.

 

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 9 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

FAME! The Musical (Church Hill Theatre: 6-10 Feb ’18

“Plenty of individual noteworthy performances”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Fame! The Musical follows a group of performance arts students through their formative years at the “Fame” high school, and is full of vivid characters, energetic dance numbers, and show-stopping songs. Largely an ensemble piece, it’s the perfect choice and platform to allow Edinburgh University Footlights’ members to present their considerable talents as actors and singers, and there are plenty of individual noteworthy performances throughout.

Mimi Joffroy demonstrates all the ingredients of a stellar leading lady as Carmen, most evident in the goosebump-inducing In L.A.; Matt Galloway delivers a laugh a line as the charismatic Joe, and dance captain Connie McFarlane proves she’s a genuine triple threat in the gospel-tinged Mabel’s Prayer. Alice Hoult and Adam Makepeace show great chemistry as romantic leads Serena and Nick, and Mhairi Goodwin serves up a killer belt as Miss Sherman in These Are My Children. Liam Bradbury never quite convinces he’s actually a hip-hop dancer as Jack, though comes into his own during the character’s signature song Dancing on the Sidewalk.

Yet given all this obvious talent, what holds this production back is being able to effectively embrace the script’s very bitty nature, made up of lots of short scenes taking place over a number of years. EU Footlights’ simple set proves very constraining to this end, often dragging the action to the back of stage, while there’s precious little to link each part and show progression over time. There are pleasing teases of getting it right during Think of Meryl Streep, as action continues behind the singer, so it’s slightly frustrating not to see more creativity in the presentation of each scene throughout to make it feel like one cohesive piece.

Additionally, Fame! is a show that is chock-full of dancing, requiring much more from a cast and choreographer than your average production. The company certainly give it their all during this performance and there are some wonderful moments during the dances (especially some of the daring lifts!), but there’s also a scrappiness to the performance – particularly in the ballet sequences – which, although charming at times, more often detracts from a lot of the other great things happening on stage. Some extra time spent in brushing these up would go a long way to adding to the quality of this production.

Overall, Fame! is a feel-good show with plenty to enjoy, and EU Footlights should be very proud of the job they’ve done with it. Though one can’t help but feel that we ain’t see the best of them yet.

 

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 7 February)

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Oliver! (Pleasance Theatre: 28 Nov-2 Dec ’17)

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Cast of Oliver! Photo by Andrew Perry.

“FSELRES_382c628d-c6dd-48a3-859b-dfb8d567e430SELRES_d4a5f1dc-f027-48ef-8ada-6aca7f57b286SELRES_d0508c34-80ff-4d1c-9452-b9a4c366ffeaSELRES_007f217a-44d6-4932-8fa1-3d14d5861ee5FFull of EUSOG’s trademark heart and powerful vocalsSELRES_007f217a-44d6-4932-8fa1-3d14d5861ee5SELRES_d0508c34-80ff-4d1c-9452-b9a4c366ffeaSELRES_d4a5f1dc-f027-48ef-8ada-6aca7f57b286SELRES_382c628d-c6dd-48a3-859b-dfb8d567e430

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Lionel Bart’s classic musical, Oliver! is an iconic story of cruelty, deceit and murder set in Victorian London, and features some of the best-known songs in musical theatre. Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group (EUSOG) first performed this show in 1988, and almost 30 years on they’re back with a fresh, youthful take on the traditional tale.

While some of the company’s creative and casting choices in this revival absolutely do work in keeping the show relevant to today’s young people, unfortunately others are over-reached and not as well realised. Early on, the choreography and staging seem unnecessarily stompy and frantic, while some of the fight and chase scenes come across as a little under-rehearsed and clumsy.

But let’s start with the positives, of which there are many. In no particular order, Grace Dickson’s Nancy is a real highlight of the show, and her human, emotive rendition of As Long As He Needs Me deservedly gets the biggest cheer of the night. Rebecca Waites shines as Charlie with terrific energy throughout, and Ashleigh More is also excellent as the Artful Dodger, with a commanding stage presence and exquisite voice and physicality. In fact, the whole Consider Yourself scene More leads is the first where everything – choreography, vocals and direction – really falls into place to present the kind of show-stopping number that EUSOG are so good at.

What student productions – and EUSOG in particular – also tend to do very well is unearthing a script’s hidden comedy, especially with smaller characters. In this production, Kirsten Millar stands out as the Sowerberrys’ maid, Charlotte, bringing life and humour to each of her scenes, while Richard Blaquiere gives a hilarious geeky awkwardness to the role of Mr Bumble. Ewan Bruce as Mr Brownlow and Niamh Higgins as Mrs Bedwin also deserve a special mention for bringing a sense of calm maturity and experience to their older characters – a pleasant contrast from the energy of some of the other scenes.

In addition to casting females in some of the other main parts, EUSOG also opt for a female Fagin, which, unfortunately doesn’t prove as successful. Kathryn Salmond certainly gives it her all in this challenging role, though the songs (in particular You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket or Two) are very low in her register, meaning a lot this character’s authority is lost and at times it’s a struggle to follow the dialogue. I almost wish the company had gone one step further to make Fagin a female character to see what dynamic that would bring to proceedings. Yann Davies pleases in the title role with a purity and innocence to his voice, though something about the way this show is put together makes it seem like the character of Oliver is almost a bit part – his presence often gets lost in among everything else going on on stage.

Overall this show is full of EUSOG’s trademark heart and powerful vocals, with some wonderful individual performances, but lacks some polish and pace to be a truly spectacular production.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 29 November)

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Hansel and Gretel (Roxy: 9-11 November ’17)

“A futuristic and fantastical interpretation of the age-old story”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

One of the many charms of fairy tales is their enduring relevance, and the Grimm Brother’s Hansel and Gretel is no exception. In their production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s fairly short opera of the same name, Le Petit Verre attempt to present a futuristic and fantastical interpretation of the age-old story, which, while daring and creative, often gets a bit lost in its own figurative forest.

Given its simple set-up and small cast it’s a wise choice of show for this new student company to flex their imagination and demonstrate their talent, and they certainly go all out with intricate theming and design of almost every aspect of the production.

Yet while some of the company’s artistic choices bring a pleasingly modern and relevant twist to proceedings (Hansel’s choreography and overall styling as a street-wise teenager, for example), unfortunately most of the creative elements suffer from a lack of congruence resulting in a rather disjointed production.

The programme notes and opening lyrics of the piece place the action firmly in a modern (potentially post-nuclear war) poverty-stricken household with no food, and where children are left alone to do chores for hours on end. It’s somewhat confusing, then, to see the all performers in glittery costumes with elaborate hair and make-up – and it’s never clear how these two themes are reconciled. The ad hoc appearance of a robotic masked chorus certainly doesn’t ease any of the comprehension.

Musically though, the assembled 40-piece orchestra makes an impressive sound and the singing on the whole is well-matched to the instrumentation, though it’s a shame the lack of microphones prevent the vocals from really being able to soar throughout the production. Patrick Dodd impresses most as the Father with his rich, warming baritone voice, while the rare duet moments between Hansel (Claire Lumsden) and Gretel (Alexandra Elvidge) are delightful to listen to. Hebe James is charming as the Gingerbread Witch and Deborah Holborn brings great characterisation to the role of the Mother.

Underneath all the gloss and glitter of this production there are lots of lovely things going on, and it’s great to see young companies coming through and taking risks with their work. While this one is a little too rough and unready, there are plenty of positives to take away from this debut production, and I look forward to Le Petit Verre’s next show.

 

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 11 November)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED