Three Tales of Life and Death (Assembly Front Room: 3-26 Aug: 15.50: 65mins)

“A witty, tender, well-written, exquisitely acted philosophical tour.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

The first scene in Craig Lucas’s new play, Three Tales of Life and Death, is deceptively simple. The lights go up on an old man and an old woman. They trepidatiously flirt and arthritically move through the motions of intimacy, and though the scene is the shortest of the five total that make up this 65-minute production, it sets up this witty, tender, well-written, and exquisitely acted philosophical tour perfectly. The show repeatedly features deceptively quaint situations like this one, then digs deeper, revealing hidden meanings along the way that are both truly affecting and genuinely entertaining.

The play is presented as a triptych. Section 1 is labeled ‘Life,’ Section 2 is ‘Death,’ and Section 3 is ‘The Afterlife.’ The same two actors tag in and out, playing different characters in each scene, from partners in dialogue to solo performers in monologue and back again.

It is paramount to credit actors Pamela Shaw and Richard Kline for the joy of watching Three Tales of Life and Death. Director Hunter Bird makes commendable choices in numerous set and costume details, but it is these two that elevate the play with their magnetism. To single out their age as a defining characteristic of their performances would be too simple — at any age, the power of Kline’s sympathetic face and voice, and Shaw’s sparkling eyes and affecting smile cannot be denied. Though some plays can feel claustrophobic when staged in venues as teeny as the literal shipping container that is the Assembly Front Room, Three Tales of Life and Death is well-placed. Even when an actor stands facing away from a section of the audience, and sightlines become quite slim, the power of the scene is not lost, due to the vocal and physical power of the performers, even with the simplest acts like unfurling an umbrella or a shake of the head.

The subject matter struggles ever so slightly to keep up with the raw talent of the performers from time to time — some scenes are better-staged and more dynamically-written than others, essentially. Lucas’s play takes on some daring subjects, from the aftermath of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture to the AIDS quilt being displayed on the National Mall, and though not everyone may agree with the opinions voiced within it, the play’s insinuations do tend to remain on the side of legitimately profound rather than preachy or narrow-minded. Observations on mortality, parental relationships, aging, regret, art journalism, and septuagenarian fellatio are both entertaining and relatable, where a lazier team might have resorted to cheap jokes or a more morose approach.

But the assembled talent is anything but lazy, and I am challenged to think of a play as humble and effective as this one, with a central duo as charming. If nothing else, go to see Kline and Shaw at work. It is refreshing to see seasoned actors performing for intimate audiences, and with material this sensitive and well-handled, these are tales certainly worth hearing.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

My round-up of this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Where to begin? The official stats say that Edinburgh’s summer festivals this year were their biggest ever, with Edinburgh International Festival selling 19% more tickets than last year, while Edinburgh Festival Fringe shows issued a whopping 2.3 million tickets between them, an increase of 5% on 2014.

At Edinburgh49, following the launch of our dedicated +3 page, we also saw a massive increase in popularity this August, with just shy of 9,000 visits (easily our best ever monthly figure), and a doubling of our followers in the same period.

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We’re really proud of that achievement, and I would personally like to thank our fantastic team: Dan Lentell, Alan Brown and Jacob Close for their contributions this festival season. Thanks also to our friends at Cult Espresso for their support, and to every one of you – the companies and punters who’ve come to us for informed reviews, and who’ve spread the word far and wide.

Several people have asked me what my favourite shows were from this year, and for me that’s always a difficult one to answer as it’s hard to compare shows across genres. What I learned from Johnny Bevan – a one-man show written and performed by Luke Wright – is definitely up there, as is Doris, Dolly and the Dressing Room Divas – a production conceived in Scotland that I sincerely hope gets the chance to be toured further afield. The Gin Chronicles, Jurassic Park and Promise and Promiscuity were all theatrical hits in my book, while La Meute (which I didn’t review) and Smother were my favourite dance/circus acts. In His Own Write and Aunty Donna certainly made me laugh the most, while Trans Scripts, To Kill A Machine and Out of The Blue’s emotional final show in their current line-up left me sobbing helplessly. Sexy, I know.

It’s certainly been a very different Festival experience for me this year, as my reviewing has taken me to many shows that I would not otherwise have considered, often with serendipitous results. And what with juggling a full-time job, working around the team’s schedules and needing to sleep once in a while, it is with a pang of regret that I must apologise to those companies who invited us to shows we were unfortunately unable to make. One of those, Guru Dudu, has extended its run until this weekend, and would very much welcome an audience – I’ve heard great things about it.

Now September’s here and Edinburgh slowly gets itself back to normal, I hand the reins back over to Alan, and I look forward to what delights will be shared in Edinburgh’s theatres for the next 49 weeks.

49 +3 Shows to See #EdFringe15

It’s been two weeks now since the official programme launch, and we’ve finally made it through all 439 pages, featuring over 3,330 shows. Needless to say we’re VERY excited for what this year’s Fringe has in store.

Being the arts geeks that we are, Alan Brown and I have managed to narrow down a list of 49+3 shows we’re really looking forward to seeing, shared below to help guide your choices.

We haven’t been bribed, cajoled, threatened or in any other way influenced in making our selection, we’re just being honest.

+ Many thanks to Loclan Mackenzie-Spencer and Andrew Strano of Nailed It! for their song in praise of our choices!

So, without further ado…

One from each of the 10 categories:
Cabaret – Nailed It!
Children’s – Dreamkeepers
Comedy – Matt Forde: Get the Political Party Started
Dance, Physical Theatre and Circus – Hitch!
Events – Edinburgh Gin’s Night of Literature and Liquor
Exhibitions – Unexpected Excesses
Music – Afropella Night
Musical Theatre – The Bakewell Bake Off: A New Musical
Spoken Word – TES
Theatre – Trans Scripts

My top 10
The Misfit Analysis
La Meute (The Wolf Pack)
Citydash
Brian Molley Quartet – Britunes
Ushers: The Front of House Musical
Poetry Can F*ck Off
Bloody East Europeans
Clickbait
Willy’s Bitches
Smother

Alan’s top 10
Ada
Down & Out in Paris & London
Light Boxes
Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour
Picasso stole the Mona Lisa
Scarfed for Life
The Sunset Five
The Titanic Orchestra
Wendy Hoose by Johnny McKnight
What Would Spock Do?

19 other recommendations (including returning favourites from former years)
Bromance
Every Brilliant Thing
Homme | Animal
Can’t Care, Won’t Care
Austentatious: An Improvised Jane Austen Novel
Doris, Dolly and the Dressing Room Divas
The Art of Reduction and the Distillation of Humanity: Whisky Theatre
Jess Robinson: The Rise of Mighty Voice
Chicken
The Jennifer Tremblay Trilogy. Parts 1, 2 & 3
We’re not dogs
The Oxford Gargoyles: Jazz a Capella
UKIP! The Musical
Going Viral
Dorian Gray
Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons
Richard III
My Name is…
The Rape of Lucrece

+3 we both agree on!
Crash
E15
Free for All

Phew – bring on August! If there are any other shows you think should be brought to our attention please get in touch with us at plus3@edinburgh49.com

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‘The Vagina Monologues’ (Teviot: 11, 13 -14 February ’15)

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“No hiding.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Let’s talk about what it means to be a woman, and let’s be real about it.

That is the message of The Vagina Monologues from Edinburgh University’s Relief Theatre.

There was no hiding from the awkwardness of the topic. Director Rachel Bussom was not about to allow for the comfort of anonymity that an audience can revel in, cloaked in darkness and removed from the stage space. This theatre-in-the-round was intimate and uncomfortable and sobering. A lack of props kept this show from feeling like a staged event. Instead, it took on the live and shameless persona of an organic story-telling. The close proximity to the actors in a brightly lit room created a close connection; a sense of shared identity regardless of age or gender.

Sex is a common theme in theatre, but sexuality is more obscure. Obscurer still is female sexuality in all its forms. Not today. Today, women were talking, or in the case of Julia Carstairs they were shouting, about vaginas and everything that comes with them.

For instance: hair. Martha Myers’ exasperation and resignation shone through as she hit home about the societal pressures attached to expectations of body image  – something Julia Carstairs’ first monologue, “My Short Skirt”, energetically pulled apart.

The combined efforts of the narrators, Ella Rogers, Caitlin McLean and Maddie Haynes, along with Marina Johnson’s statistical ‘Factbook’, kept the show current and hard-hitting – an impressive task considering the original show premiered nineteen years ago and society’s views on women and womanhood have changed since then. That this strong production is dedicated to the transgender community is also properly noteworthy.

Carstairs’ second monologue, “Cunt”, was a valiant attempt to reclaim a word used solely now as a derogatory term. Her exploration of sound, language and pace was invigorating and allowed a positive humour to surround the controversial language. That humour was carried on by En Thompson who offered a passionate performance in honour of her “Angry Vagina”. Her bluntness and frustration was eye-opening and tore through long-accepted notions of what womanhood means and entails.

Her anger was shared and increased tenfold in a gut-wrenching performance by Kirstyn Petras who fiercely conveyed the utter devastation of the Bosnian women who had been interviewed by playwright Eve Ensler after being subjected to the horror of rape camps. Petras pulled no punches, emulating a loathing that raised hairs and drew tears – the pain so tangible and the truth unbearable.

Jezneen Belleza may have been talking about vaginas, but her performance certainly took a pair of brass ones. As “The Woman Who Loved Vaginas”, she discussed the life of a sex worker with an honesty and intensity that, despite some more uncomfortable moments, made it impossible not to watch, listen and laugh. She lightened the mood with comedic re-enactments and did so with a grace that kept the story from becoming farcical. Instead, her frank analysis reached deep into the beauty and magic of female sexuality.

Both Isobel Dew and Siân Davies tackled sexuality and body image in a kinder manner – managing to capture the incredible feeling of self-discovery, and the subsequent elation, in a beautiful way. Sophie Harris, too, carried an air of hope in her phoenix-like rising from such a dark place to a position of acceptance and learning. Meanwhile, Ruth Brown’s impressive embodiment of generations gone by in her recollection of “The Flood” brought an endearing humour as well as a sense of pity and despair to the play. For Danielle Farrow it is the sheer beauty of womanhood and nature that matters as she recounted being present for the birth of her granddaughter. Her testimony was infectious and heart-warming.

Leaving the venue, I felt elated and empowered. This  is an inspiring production that entertains, empathises and educates. Bussom, assistant director Mary McGuire and sole male of the team – producer Jacob Close – bring together a group of really talented women who do themselves, and all women, justice.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Amy King  (Seen 11 February)

Go to Relief Theatre at EUSA here

Visit the Potterrow & Teviot  archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

‘The Lives of the High-Rise Saints’ (Summerhall: 10 – 12 Oct ’13)

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Image by pawlowicz.art.pl

“Anyone who has worked on a DIY project will know that there are always bits left over, and this is the starting point of Ameijko’s work. God’s work took six days and on the seventh day he rested – but on the seventh day the flotsam and jetsam from creation gathered together in a tower block.”

Editorial Rating: Unrated 

The Lives of The High-Rise Saints brings a wide range of disciplines to the Summerhall stage. This one woman puppetry show from Agata Kucinska reaches into the reject pile of society to examine the inner strength that people can find to get through their lives.

Many of the visuals are slightly twisted away from the norm, and the inventiveness behind the design is a delight to see. The performance is a technical tour de force that uses everything from very small rod puppets through to larger human-arm puppets, and even Kucinska donning a mask and puppet limbs to physically take on one of the roles herself.

The story itself, adapted from the work of the same name by Poland’s Lidla Amejko, is both dark and challenging. Anyone who has worked on a DIY project will know that there are always bits left over, and this is the starting point of Ameijko’s work. God’s work took six days and on the seventh day he rested – but on the seventh day the flotsam and jetsam from creation gathered together in a tower block. Trusting only in themselves, they scrape out a living at the fringe of society, a motley band of wastrels, tortured souls, and dubious morals, sharing the tales of their lives with each other and the audience.

On the surface there is little to love about these characters. Rejected by the rest of the world, it is very easy to gloss over them on stage and write them off, but this slow burn of characterisation through individual vignettes is countered by the love and energy Kucinska brings to the stage. You approach each character with trepidation and an almost grotesque curiosity before slowly being pulled into their world.

It’s backed with an inventive live sound-scape that mixes foley effects and music to highlight the sadness of this world. This contrasts well with the small moments of joy each character has to look for to break the monotony of their life with brief bursts of joy and satisfaction.

You need to make that journey to appreciate the small moments that make their lives bearable, but the experience and repetition as the script moves through the roll call left me with a sense of exploitation and horror. This is not an easy performance to watch, but it is layered, thoughtful, and has much to say.

Technically Kucinska has mastered the many facets of puppetry used throughout the show, but with the grotesque nature of the characterisation it becomes hard to connect with the characters. This is not aided by the tone, which is almost oppressive in its darkness; while this accurately reflects the world the characters inhabit, it inhibits investment in their plight and results in the show failing to realise its potential to truly captivate the audience’s attention. Dark can work if enough empathy can be created, but the various elements of the show never quite clicked together, resulting in a somewhat disjointed experience.

Everyone in life is dealt some rubbish cards and the occupants of the tower block know just how weak their cards are but they make the best of the trying circumstances and show a great resilience of spirit in the face of depression and hostility. There is a lesson in there for all of us.

‘The Fantasticks’ (Bedlam: 9 – 12 Oct ’13)

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Image by Louise Spence

“Performed in New York almost continuously since 1960, The Fantasticks is a curiously-constructed musical.  The first act is cutesy – sometimes to a fault – telling the knowingly-ridiculous tale of a forbidden teenage romance, and of two fathers’ efforts to control their love-struck offspring.”

Editorial Rating: Unrated

“Try to remember the kind of September / When life was slow, and oh, so mellow,” exhorts The Fantasticks’ famed opening song. Well, they’ve missed September by a week or two, but in every other respect Edinburgh University Theatre Company have fulfilled that brief: this is a warm-hearted, uncomplicated production, which gently lulls you backwards into an agreeably nostalgic haze.  Sadly, however, the lyric also foretells this production’s main weakness.  It’s all just a little bit slow.

Performed in New York almost continuously since 1960, The Fantasticks is a curiously-constructed musical.  The first act is cutesy – sometimes to a fault – telling the knowingly-ridiculous tale of a forbidden teenage romance, and of two fathers’ efforts to control their love-struck offspring.  But after the interval, the scenes grow dream-like and altogether darker, in a dislocating transition which this particular production never quite pulled off.  It doesn’t help that the original boy-meets-girl plot is wrapped up by the end of Act One, leaving the second half to lumber away from an awkward standing start.

But we can’t blame EUTC for the plot’s idiosyncrasies, and they’ve certainly had fun responding to its old-style American charm. Jordan Robert-Laverty neatly captures the clean-cut naivety of a 1950’s college boy, while Claire Saunders excels as his swooning 16-year-old paramour, milking the comedy of her role without ever quite crossing the line into over-acting.  Saunders’ voice lends her songs an almost operatic tone, and contrasts nicely with the more natural style of Alexandre Poole – who brings an understated authority to his multi-faceted role as both villain and narrator.

Muscially, however, the performance suffered from frustrating inconsistency, with almost all the actors delivering showstopping performances for some songs while clearly struggling with others.  The surprising exceptions were Daniel Harris and Thomas Ware, playing the two teenagers’ warring fathers; their characters seem at first to be formulaic comedy chumps, but soon prove to be far more.  Harris and Ware both have fine, comforting voices, and their harmonising duets proved a thoroughly unexpected highlight – enhanced by some genuinely witty, if slightly methodical, dance.

Indeed, the whole production demonstrates a playful sense of physicality, with an impressive swordfight (and gloriously extended death scene) raising the stakes just before the interval.  But whenever the pace wasn’t being dictated by the music, the energy ebbed away.

So EUTC’s production isn’t quite fantastic – but it’s an enjoyable, stylish, and life-affirming version of a cosily charming musical. Credit must also go to pianist Dan Glover and harpist (yes, harpist) Sam MacAdam, whose position at the side of the stage brings them very much into the heart of the performance.  It’s a show I’ll be sure to remember.

‘The Baroness: Karen Blixen’s Final Affair’ (Traverse; 27-28 Sept ’13)

Dogstar Theatre The Baroness Roberta Taylor (Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) Photo credit Leila Angus

Image by Leila Angus

 “Among Denmark’s literary superstars few are more fascinating than Karen Blixen, pen name Isak Dinesen (1883-1962). The Baroness is the story of her final affair: a platonic entanglement with a much younger poet.”

Editorial Rating: Unrated

For a country where summer temperatures struggle to exceed 20°C, in terms of cultural exports, Denmark and all things Danish are surprisingly hot right now. Successes such as The Killing and Borgen have rocketed outside awareness and interest. Among Denmark’s literary superstars few are more fascinating than Karen Blixen, pen name Isak Dinesen (1883-1962). The Baroness is the story of her final affair: a platonic entanglement with a much younger poet.

We enter to find two harp-shaped window frames with fewer right angles than the Goetheanum. In one hangs a tribal mask intended to conjure images of Blitzen’s years as a coffee planter in Africa (I think it resembles Norman Tebbit). An eclectic harmony of furniture perfectly captures the sense that we are looking into the dwelling place of a mind born for the Belle Époque. Her young companion is evidently much less at home. He belongs instead to that new generation which Kennedy’s Danish-American speechwriter would describe a year before Blixen’s death as “tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.”

The friendship of Blixen and Thorkild Bjørnvig is a matter of historical record. At times the script creeps into the realm of docudrama. When Blixen encourages her protégée to abandon his wife, child and work in order to compel the flow of his artistic creativity, she laments that Denmark is “flat as a duck pond”. Similarly, the muted script gives little sense of a tempest brewing in, or subsequently howling through, the hearts of the protagonists.

Roberta Taylor as Blixen and Ewan Donald as Bjørnvig provide well-rounded individual character sketches. There are flashes of real insight, such as Donald’s steadily improving posture, but there is little shared fascination. Blixen is portrayed at the centre of a social and cultural web in which she occultishly snares young bloods with which to feed her imagination.

Several of the techniques deployed to fill a stylized frame with stylish content are over hesitant. The dramatic function of the mutual friend (played charmingly by Romana Abercromby), for example, is uncertain – diverting more than developing the over-lengthy central narrative. By the interval I think I’ve got the point. Other than the brightly conceived set transition from Blixen’s home to Bjørnvig’s northern hideaway, not much more is said or done.

Pace was a problem throughout. Far from crisp efficiency, the frequent scene changes are slow (although composer Aiden O’Rourke’s bold, introspective score make this less of a negative). Projection was a problem too, I did not feel played to in the steeply tiered back row of Traverse One.

Dogstar Theatre squeezed hard and a good amount of zesty juice was delivered into the glass. If their future endeavours maintain the very high standards set by The Baroness for smart, funny staging of deep, moody drama then we can expect great things from them in the coming years.

Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 28 September)

Visit The Baroness homepage here.