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.

 

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 11 November)

Visit the Assembly Roxy archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Two Sides of the Curtain (theSpace on the Mile: 14-19th Aug: 19.05: 50 mins)

“Emotive and gripping”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars:

Two Sides of the Curtain follows the struggle of Ada and Erich – lovers on either side of the “curtain”, who long to be together, but, for whatever reason, can’t. At least that’s what I think it’s about. I’ll admit I’m no expert on the history and politics surrounding the Cold War and the specific reasons why people were and weren’t permitted access to certain places, but even by the end of the performance I didn’t feel much the wiser.

Erich seems to have a job that gives him quite a lot of political and practical clout, including the freedom to travel around the country (presumably Germany) as he chooses, while much of Ada’s reluctance to run away with him seems to come from lack of will rather than fear of being caught in the process, though it’s never particularly clear why she makes the decisions she does. Indeed, it’s quite frustrating how little we get to learn about both characters throughout the piece, making it hard to empathise with them at any given moment.

Shifts in time and place are also difficult to comprehend – I spent much of the show trying to work out when and where the action was taking place, with very few clues – in either the script, direction or design – to assist. Token pieces of props or set – had there been any – may have helped to some extent, but it’s the lack of detail in the script which is the main problem. If writer Jack Kelly aims to create a thick fog of mystery surrounding the piece he certainly succeeds, but more detail up front would definitely help laymen like me wade through it with him, rather than being left languishing in an ignorant abyss.

In saying that, the play does have commendable ideas: the struggle of two lovers on either side of a dangerous line is emotive and gripping, as are the twists that develop in the closing couple of scenes – it’s a shame this all comes so late on. The performances are solid: Rachael Naylor as Ada is very natural and easy to watch, while Andrew Crouch as Erich shows great emotional range and charisma. There is potential here to make a really gripping show.

Overall this is a good effort from Sussex University Drama Society, but the flaws and holes in the script just make it too difficult to fully engage with. If you like a show where you have to do a lot of guessing and detective work to piece together what’s going on, or perhaps are a lot more clued up on what it’s like to live in Cold War Berlin than me on any given Saturday evening, this show might be for you. But I’m still trying to work out who, where and when I am.

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 19 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

A Sudden Burst of Blinding Light (Gilded Balloon Teviot: 2-19 Aug: 14.30: 60mins)

“Commendably earnest.”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club’s A Sudden Burst of Blinding Light is structured and effectively performed like a cosmic nightmare. Two contestants on a bizarre game show, Jude (Maya Achan) and Leon (Malcolm Ebose), are tormented and ridiculed by bubbly but sadistic show hosts and forced to explore their own shame and pain through reenactments and flashbacks of previous traumas. The stuff of nightmares. The question the show and its artistic choices raise most consistently is: whose nightmare?

The game show format can be entertaining for a live play, but the script of A Sudden Burst of Blinding Light, written by Ben Maier, does not use the format very well, as frequent flashbacks, monologues, and freeze-frame asides not only jar the audience but muddy the point of the play as a whole. Is this a comedy? A tragicomedy? A through-and-through parody/satire of the flippancy and crass positivity we employ when discussing mental illness? I’m not sure we ever find out.

The contestants, at least, are effectively characterised. The melancholy Ebose conceals within the role of Leon and the mousiness Achan hardwires into Jude are well developed and rehearsed.  The show hosts, Terry (Ed Paget) and Fizz (Charlotte Cromie), lean more towards slapstick insanity, but as unpredictable sadists, they certainly remain in character the whole way through. However, its hard to shake the sense that the whole tone of the piece is off somehow, from the half-hearted and half-delivered punchlines to the rushed backstories given to what could have been interesting characters.

Aesthetically, the show is colourful, but inconsistent and dizzying. Though the costumes are appropriately tailored to the wearer’s characteristics, and the lighting, designed by Avi Pluskoska, flashes and twirls well (most of the time), this play seems to have skipped any consideration of stage geography and audience comprehension. Following where and when the actions and flashbacks are taking place is near impossible, and the production team could have benefited from designing more specific regions of the stage and uses of lighting to differentiate between the game show environment and the myriad other settings where scenes take place.

There is something to be said for layering truly tragic revelations with comedic flippancy. At times, the striking cruelty that marmalade-suited host Terry (played at breakneck speed by Paget) hurls at timid Jude and humble Leon begins to recall the uncaring approach we can all sometimes take to mental illness and other people’s serious issues in general. The whirlwind incomprehensibility of the game show begins to mirror what a world may look like to someone with debilitating trauma like the contestants. To their credit, the actors do a fine job of selling this nightmarish tone. Paget’s manic voice and Cromie’s devilish mannerisms as Fizz convince the spectator that what they are seeing is crass and cruel indeed, and these performances are commendably earnest.

The show comes into its own more successfully around the second half, as the hosts themselves show signs of trauma and characterisation, the pain is spread around, and we get to sees signs of weakness in the tormentors. The implications that Terry and Fizz’s cruelty stems from their own self-hatred is momentarily interesting, yet these moments are too quickly presented and discarded to be of any note. And then there’s the highly questionable entrance of a ludicrously costumed crooner named Frankie Valium, (ha), played by Harry Burke, who does a somewhat charming ditty, then fails to project enough for any of his lines to be understood, returning for one late monologue about a bear attack that just halts any trajectory the play had going for it. This scene in particular is frustratingly unnecessary, ill-advised, and poorly written, that any hope of coherence is blown away completely.

All that said, commendable moments shined through. Malcolm Ebose, playing Leon, is a highlight; he manages to portray his inner anguish with a striking tone of beauty. Whenever he does, however, A Sudden Burst of Blinding Light shows its hand by quickly cutting back to crass, cold, cheap laughs that end up turning the tasteless nightmare on the paying audience more than anyone. Whatever director Carine Valarché had in mind, this reviewer cannot recommend it. Game over.

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer:  Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Company (Paradise in St Augustine’s: 4-12 Aug: 21.30: 2hrs 15mins)

“Rarely do you see this level of talent from an amateur group on a Fringe stage.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

Sondheim’s multi-award-winning Company burst onto Broadway in 1970, flying in the face of popular narrative-led musicals and instead presenting a series of vignettes around Bobby, a thirty-something man, happily single, but surrounded by couples who all want to see him get hitched. While the celebration of being happily unmarried may have caused quite a stir at the time, for today’s Tinder generation the themes still have great relevance, and Company comically dissects what being in a couple is really like.

And it’s the comic element of the show that EUSOG have really mastered with their interpretation. The sneaky looks, the perfect timing, the inflections and staging all contribute to the feeling of satire the whole musical embodies, and director Grace Dickson has done a marvellous job in weaving together one consistent style through what is really quite a fragmented production.

Of course, having the right cast helps, and this one is just oozing with talent and personality. Bella Rogers is a delight as airhead April, and Ellie Millar is on point as prudish housewife Jenny, whose attempts to swear while being stoned for the first time had me in stitches. But comically it’s Kathryn Salmond as Amy who steals Act 1 with a sensational rendition of the notoriously difficult patter song Getting Married Today. It’s fast, it’s controlled, completely in character and worth buying a ticket for for those few minutes alone.

Yet while I could really pick any number of songs as stand-out highlights of this performance, it’s Esme Cook’s The Ladies who Lunch that launches this show into the stratosphere. With depth, sensitivity and a killer belt, demonstrating maturity well beyond her years, Cook delivers a goosebump-inducing class act that deserves to be witnessed far and wide. Rarely do you see this level of talent from an amateur group on a Fringe stage.

And then of course there’s the main man, Ethan Baird who brings a subtle and amusingly awkward approach to central character, Bobby. His natural charisma and swagger make him instantly likeable, and he balances the role of observer and participant in the action with ease. His Being Alive builds and teases, much like the structure of the song itself, and the rousing final chorus is delivered with aplomb – a fitting finale to a powerhouse performance throughout.

The musical style and structure of Company isn’t for everyone, and at well over two hours (with interval) it’s quite a slog. At times the choreography lacks a little polish and pizzazz, and the sound levels could do with a bit more balancing out to allow some of the vocals to really soar, but weighing all that against the sheer heart of this performance, you’d really be mad to miss it. Go alone or go with company. Just go and see Company.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 6 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Endgame (Bedlam: 22-26 March ’16)

Thomas Noble as Hamm

Thomas Noble as Hamm

“The best student production I’ve seen in quite some time”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

One certainly cannot fault the courage of the students at Edinburgh University this year for taking on so many challenging productions, and to even attempt Beckett – whose works so often have age and world-weariness as themes – is admirable. I was lucky enough to spend an entire term studying Beckett at university, under the tutorship of a renowned expert on his works, but even then I worried that my final performance would be a tragic, naïve offering compared to what had gone before.

Beckett certainly isn’t for everyone, and Endgame is a one-act play with a running time of close to 90 minutes that has very little narrative development or real “action”. What is most satisfying about this production is the group’s sensitivity to Beckett’s text. The great man is notoriously particular about how his work should be performed, and Edinburgh University Theatre Company don’t try any tricks or fancy interpretations to make it new or innovative, but instead use subtlety to let the text speak for itself. Finlay McAfee’s masterful direction teases out various interesting repetitions in the dialogue and hints at some of the political undertones, but never makes bold statements or suggestions.

In saying that, this production also doesn’t take itself too seriously – it’s littered with comedic moments, just as Beckett intended, and is a very well-rounded and watchable show. Sarah Brown’s set is simple yet effective, using black and white as a nod to the “game” element, while all other creative elements are in sync to present a cohesive and professional mise-en-scene.

Thomas Noble as Hamm is the centrepiece of the actors – always on stage, centre stage, he commands attention with charisma and gusto. His moments of anger when flinging props aside are powerful, while he shows great contrast in more intimate conversations with Clov. In turn Clov (Michael Hajiantonis) is excellent as the down-trodden servant, whose development in confidence towards the end, extreme physicality and impressive Irish accent all contribute to a commendable performance.

Jennifer Jones is compelling to watch as Nag, with fantastic control over the small movements and expressions she makes inside the bin. Her physicality is exquisite, and her delivery of the tailor story is achingly on point. Antonia Weir is equally captivating and convincing as long-suffering wife Nell.

To me the only thing lacking from this production is a deeper sense of age and timelessness. The action all seemed a little too fresh and perhaps a touch too “performed” for it to be believable as a snapshot of continual drudgery. In saying that, I’d much rather a slight tip in this direction to keep it energetic and engaging rather than veering down the road of self-indulgent dawdling. In all other respects this show is hard to fault, it’s certainly the best student production I’ve seen in quite some time.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 23 March)

Go to Endgame at Bedlam Theatre

Visit Edinburgh49‘s Bedlam archive.

Julius Caesar (Augustine United Church 1 – 5 March ’16)

Antony (Tom Birch), Caesar (Adam Butler) and Calpurnia (Heather Daniel)

“The kind of unbridled creativity I often only see in student productions”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Reimagining Shakespeare’s classic tale in the modern day world of professional football may seem like lunacy to some, but with themes like loyalty, pride in one’s city, questions over physical fitness and a bit of back-stabbing, the parallels between ancient Rome and football today aren’t as dissimilar as might be first assumed – it certainly piqued my interest. However, as can happen in football, I think there was perhaps too much theorising behind this production, which didn’t quite convert to success on the pitch.

Much like when reading a Hilary Mantel novel, I worry when I find myself constantly having to flick back to the character list to be reminded who everyone is and what side they’re on. And with this interpretation assigning each character a footballing role (for one or more teams) as well, it’s certainly not the easiest to follow for someone unfamiliar with the play.

Adam Butler as Caesar is every inch the star player in this outing, commanding attention and respect from all around him, and it is easy to build rapport with him as the fans’ favourite. He is confident, charismatic and handles Shakespeare’s text very well. Charlie Angelo is also enjoyable and convincing as Casca, bringing an air of comedy into what is otherwise quite an intense evening’s entertainment.

Various women are cast in male roles in this production, the most interesting of these being Alice Markey as Decius, who holds her own with strength and precision. However, in arguably the most important scene of the play, where Calpurnia convinces Caesar not to go out, only for Decius to then persuade him otherwise, I would have really liked to have seen the female Decius use a more sexual approach to her argument, heightening the tension in the scene which unfortunately seemed rather rushed.

Indeed, missed opportunities seemed the name of the game throughout, with many great ideas going unfulfilled or veering off-target. With almost all characters being football players, it is surprising how much standing around there is in group scenes, whereas seeing some football in action and the interactions that come naturally within that could add more depth and integrity to the performance. Given the interpretation of this piece I was also disappointed the fight scenes are not reimagined as football matches between the rival factions, and that stabbing is so faithfully used as the murder method of choice. With interesting references to performance-enhancing and other kinds of drugs throughout, maybe “dagger” could have had a whole new meaning?

However, what I particularly enjoyed about this production was the inventiveness of the projected films throughout, showing characters as models, celebrities and footballers on the pitch. These sections work very well to give background and depth to the characters, and to cover any edits from the original script. Additionally, when all characters are on stage reacting to Antony’s speech after Caesar’s death the atmosphere is very powerful and sustained, while the fight scenes show great energy and control. The use of hoodies instead of cloaks, paparazzi and mobile phones were all nice modern touches showing the kind of unbridled creativity I often only see in student productions.

Overall, I admire the headstrong strategy and imagination of the squad in this play, but for me the formation didn’t allow it to achieve a resounding victory.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 2 March)

Visit the Other archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

The Bakewell Bake Off: A New Musical (C, 5 – 22 Aug : 17.00 : 1hr 10 mins)

“A sweet, easy-to-watch crowd pleaser”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

It was only a matter of time before a GBBO-themed show made it to the Fringe, and this one has all the necessary ingredients for a sweet, easy-to-watch crowd pleaser.

The plot is exactly what you would expect – an eclectic group of wannabe bakers pit their culinary skills against each other to please three ultra-competitive judges and be crowned Bakewell’s best baker. There are some interesting characters and relationships, including a cross-dresser, a nun, a woman obsessed with Christmas, an Asian doctor (who becomes the subject of some racist abuse), and it’s all hosted by the very talkative yet incredibly likeable hostess called Victoria Sponge.

The script is full of wonderful baking-related puns: from characters whose names include, Tina Tartan and Henrietta Apfelstrudel, to a nun’s “Desecrated Coconut” cake, which tickled me the most. Indeed the writing is clever throughout the piece with lots of quips and wordplay to keep the audience amused, even if the narrative itself is pretty thin.

For me Sophie Forster as catty judge Griselda Pratt-Dewhurst delivered the best comic performance with an array of scathing put downs, while rival judge Hugh Dripp, played George Rexstrew, commanded the stage with great presence and energy.

Overall the singing was good, but at its best in the choral numbers. One can’t be too critical of sound levels of a student production in the Fringe space – the soloists did as best they could and with a full band and microphones I am sure they would have dazzled. This was most evident in gospel number Bake Your Way to Heaven, where I was longing for Imogen Coutts’s vocals to soar above the rousing backing singers. Alas, a commendable effort.

The choreography was perhaps more impressive, with a great range of routines for the varied musical numbers, all delivered deftly and with great energy. My favourite was the tango to the cleverly named “The Original Bakewell Tart”, which was performed with great finesse.

At an hour and 10 minutes this show is a decent length, although I feel that one or two of the characters could have been sacrificed to allow us to get to know the others better and build up more tension between them. There was a lovely moment towards the end between Freddie Twist (Charlie Keable) and Susie Sunflower (Ros Bell), who formed a very believable romance throughout the competition, and more layers like this would help turn this show from being good into really great.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 16 August)

Visit the Other archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED