Friday, August 19, 2016

Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2016 round-up


Here's a list of the shows I saw and reviewed while at 2016's Edinburgh Festival Fringe, thanks to the Network of Independent Critics.

Royal Vauxhall (Underbelly Med Quad, Edinburgh Fringe)

What would happen if anarchic radio DJ and TV comedian Kenny Everett, and international rock megastar Freddie Mercury, decided to take the doe-eyed Queen of Hearts Princess Diana out to a gay bar? Well, believe it or not, that did actually happen, and Royal Vauxhall, a new musical from Desmond O'Connor, answers that question in its own unique way.

Although its tongue is very much in its cheek, there is an underlying melancholy to Royal Vauxhall. The unspoken truth shared by the writer and the audience is that we all know these three characters have a tragic end, and there are glimmers of self-awareness, especially in Mercury. Royal Vauxhall is set at the fag end of the 1980s, when the once close friends Mercury and Everett had made up following a fall-out over a tell-all book written by Everett's wife. Diana is feeling trapped in a loveless marriage, and everything is careering headlong toward that fateful November in 1991 when the world lost one of its brightest, most extravagant stars.

Canon Warriors (Paradise in the Vault, Edinburgh Fringe)

When you're a fantasist, it can hurt to live in the real world; and when you're a realist, it can be really quite frustrating to have to cope with the fripperies of fantasy.

This is the set-up for the two characters at the centre of Hannah Greenstreet's charming Canon Warriors, in which we meet puppet-mad Punch, who lives pretty much inside her own head, and pragmatic Fleur, who looks after them both, practically and financially. They love one another very much, and live illegally in a council beach hut in Thanet, eking out a modest existence on what little money Fleur earns as a part-time teaching assistant.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Smother (ZOO Southside, Edinburgh Fringe)

It's not often you see homosexuality explored through hip hop, which makes 201 Dance Company's Smother all the more important. Dance is an art form where you see people of the same sex in unusually intimate situations quite commonly, but that is not necessarily sexual, merely the consequence of the choreography. Smother is about gay people, and so the intimacy becomes charged with a purposefully sexual subtext.

It is the touching story of two men who fall in love, but whose relationship is not perfect, and whose connection is put under strain by one party's abuse of drugs. Chalk dust usually used for grip cleverly doubles up as a certain white powder here, which the user aggressively blows in his boyfriend's face - it's a beautiful, visual way to get the theme across.

5 Guys Chillin' (C Too, Edinburgh Fringe)

I don't usually begin reviews with "I", but in the case of 5 Guys Chillin', I'm going to bend the rules. Because it's virtually impossible to write about the play without referring to your own, deep-seated reaction to it.

5 Guys Chillin' is less of a play and more of an experience. Pieced together by Peter Darney from more than 50 hours of interviews with men found through Grindr and other apps, it is a verbatim drama which pulls absolutely no punches in its depiction of the chem-sex subculture. It is immersion without interaction, for the audience is very definitely there "in the room". The fourth wall has never been built, and the first, second and third walls were demolished before you even stepped foot inside.

It takes place in one flat where a chem-sex party takes place among five gay men. They strip to their pants and indulge in all manner of debauched activities involving sex and drugs, and gradually get wilder, looser and more hedonistic. It's like being at a real-life sex party, as it plays out in real time before you, with real words spoken by real people about the terribly real things they've done.

Pussyfooting (Paradise in the Vault, Edinburgh Fringe)

Built from interviews and workshops with women and transgender people across the UK, Pussyfooting is a "collaged exploration" of how it is to live in a gendered body. And what fantastic fun it is too!

Pussyfooting is a feast of comedy sketches, light-hearted sit-down discussions and heartfelt truth-telling, and it is ridiculously empowering for both men and women. At its core, it asks what it means to be a woman. Does it mean long, flowing hair? Being there when a loved one is crying, and staying until their upset is sated? Is being a woman defined by simply having a vagina, or periods, or breasts?

A Dream of Dying (The Space at Surgeon's Hall, Edinburgh Fringe)

We all love a good mystery, and the mystery at the heart of Fake Escape's A Dream of Dying couldn't be more compelling. In 2009, Peter Bergmann washed up on a beach in Ireland. But that was not his real name. He did not live there, and no one ever came to claim him. To this day, he has never been identified, but police pieced together this stranger's final hours by viewing CCTV footage and talking to local residents.

He had bought envelopes that were never posted, given fake addresses to hotels, and dispensed of his worldly belongings in various waste bins dotted across the small seaside town of Sligo. When the body washed ashore, a lengthy investigation began to attempt to identify the stranger.

Sounds fascinating, doesn't it? However, A Dream of Dying does not provide any answers, principally because there are none to give. Bergmann's secrets have never been solved, and so Treasa Nealon's play attempts to imagine what kind of man he was, and what might have led him to this baffling demise.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Oh Hello! (Assembly George Square Studios, Edinburgh Fringe)

Charles Hawtrey worked with Will Hay, you know. And Groucho Marx. And he was directed by Alfred Hitchcock (albeit for just 15 seconds). These are career highlights for him, but of course the only thing he's really remembered for is the Carry On films.

Oh Hello! does for Charles Hawtrey what David Benson's Think No Evil of Us did for Kenneth Williams in that it brings to life a personality generally only known for their work, rather than as people. This is a revival of a play first performed by writer Dave Ainsworth many years ago, but which now has Jamie Rees playing the subject, and to greater success.

Rees has a striking resemblance to Hawtrey, and has his impersonation down to perfection. The look, the avian body language, the chuckle in his voice, the camp asides... it's like Rees is channelling the spirit of Hawtrey for the duration of the piece. There's a lot of hard work gone into studying his subject, and it pays off in spades. We're also treated to snatches of Kenneth Williams, Sid James, Jim Dale and even Barbara Windsor.

Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy (Greenside at Nicolson Square, Edinburgh Fringe)

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy have been dead for more than 50 years, but time has not diminished either their reputation or their talents, which was why the auditorium was almost packed out for Searchlight Theatre's loving tribute to the greatest comedy double act there ever was.

Laurel and Hardy were in their sixties when they embarked upon a grand tour of the UK in the early 1950s. They'd recently finished filming their last ever movie (the disastrous but overlooked Atoll K aka Utopia), which had not been a pleasurable experience at all, so they were not prepared for the waves of adulation and adoration that greeted them everywhere they went on this tour of the nation's music halls and theatres. Indeed, when they sailed across to Ireland they were greeted by hordes of fans at the water's edge, and the church bells chimed their trademark Cuckoo Song, provoking tears of joy from the ageing boys.

A Regular Little Houdini (Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh Fringe)

You'd never guess it, but Harry Houdini loved Newport. He loved the grand Lyceum Theatre there, and chose the South Wales town to kick off his first international tour in 1905. However, the superstar escapologist and magician had a habit of making enemies as well as friends in Newport, ever since the trick he pulled escaping from Newport jail, putting the local constabulary to shame. The police never exactly greeted him back to Newport with open arms after that, but it didn't stop him going.

Daniel Llewelyn-Williams's one-man play takes Houdini's connection with Newport as the inspiration for what is a heartwarming and enthralling tale of childhood heroes, working class hardship and fatal disasters. Llewelyn-Williams plays a young boy called Alun (aged variously between 10 and 14) who idolises Houdini and spends his boyhood trying to learn his hero's tricks, or "amazements" as he insists they should be called.

Darktales (Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh Fringe)

Who knew that memorial portraiture was a thing? Well, it was during those notoriously morbid Victorian times, when families would pay photographers to pose their deceased children as if they were alive, and take a keepsake image of them. It is a practice we have difficulty with today, but back in the 19th century, when infant mortality was so much higher, mourning portraits were the obvious way of holding on to loved ones lost. It makes sense, if a somewhat grisly sense seen with our 21st century eyes.

Memorial portraiture is just one of many unpleasant ideas in Tim Arthur's horror story Darktales, which concerns the less-than-subtly-named Alex Crowley, a literature teacher and once celebrated horror author, who invites a former student to his quarters to interview him about his latest novel. His fiction-writing career has been overshadowed by the runaway success 20 years earlier of his book Darktales, a success he has been unable to rekindle since. His new book is to be a sequel, and he asks journalist Jack Langton to record a vlog to help publicise his work.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Partial Nudity (ZOO, Edinburgh Fringe)

Partial Nudity is the inaugural production of the fledgling Fandango theatre company, set up by actors Joe Layton and Kate Franz to fulfil their dream of staging a show at the Edinburgh Fringe. Their raison d'etre is to deliver a message that matters, focusing on sexual politics. What better way to do that than to stick one man and one woman in a room together and make them talk?

Darren is a stripper from Bolton looking forward to, but understandably anxious about, his first "full strip". His schtick is the sexy American cop, complete with cap, plastic handcuffs and mirrored shades. He's your stereotypical jack-the-lad, a cock o' the walk who thinks he's a major draw for the ladies simply because they pay good money to ogle his manhood (but let's face it, most women burst into laughter when they see a man's penis).

Nina is a stripper from America who is studying at Manchester University and takes off her clothes in order to pay her student debts. Her schtick is sexy nurse and naughty nun, equipped with fishnets, high heels and leather basque. She is jaded by the stripping industry, seemingly scarred by leering men's assumption that strippers = hookers, and that because they're paying to see most of the goods, they can get the rest for free.

Care Takers (C, Edinburgh Fringe)

Most of the time, when you see a depiction of homophobic bullying in the school environment, it's told either from the child's perspective, or is inclusive of it. But what Billy Cowan's Care Takers does is completely remove the victim and drills down, beneath and behind the scenes, to see what happens when the system gets involved.

Written as part of a research project by Edge Hill University in Ormskirk, Lancashire, Care Takers is a blisteringly strong script handled with confidence and passion by two heavily invested, sensitive performers. Set entirely within the office of the deputy head of an inner-city school, Care Takers examines the issue of institutionalised homophobia by presenting both sides of a very compelling argument.

Wilde Without the Boy (Assembly Hall, Edinburgh Fringe)

On Tuesday, May 18th, 1897, the once celebrated, now disgraced socialite and playwright Oscar Wilde was released from prison after a two-year incarceration for gross indecency. Between January and March that year, Wilde had been permitted by the prison governor to write a letter to his erstwhile lover, Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), in an attempt at both catharsis and rehabilitation.

The fact he was only allowed to write it one page at a time, with each page being taken away on completion, meant Wilde was unable to read his 20-page manuscript as a whole. Neither was he allowed to actually send the letter to its intended recipient, but Wilde did get to take it away with him on his day of release from prison, which is the day Cahoots Theatre Company's Wilde Without the Boy takes place.

Meet Fred (Summerhall, Edinburgh Fringe)

It used to be a trailblazing, groundbreaking novelty to break the fourth wall in theatre, to acknowledge the fact there was an audience watching you and include them in the performance. But with Meet Fred, there is no fourth wall to break in the first place. What you see is presented as real, a show within a show.

Hijinx Theatre specialises in working with actors who have learning disabilities, training them to work at a professional level of performance. Their latest show, Meet Fred, uses Japanese Bunraku, invented more than 300 years ago, to bring to life Fred, a three-man puppet who firstly has to come to terms with the fact he is a puppet, and then cope with having three strange men stand behind him to move his limbs around, and give him voice. It's best not to think about how this works for too long as it makes your brain hurt a little. The idea of a self-aware puppet is not new, but the story Hijinx tells is most probably unique.

Nosferatu's Shadow (Sweet Grassmarket, Edinburgh Fringe)

Is it not better to be remembered for just one thing rather than nothing at all? Max Schreck doesn't think so. He'd rather be completely forgotten, lost in the mists of time, than be remembered for the one role which has endured almost an entire century.

Schreck will forever be associated with his most indelible role, that of Count Orlok in the 1922 German Expressionist silent horror, Nosferatu. Even if you've never seen the film (and let's face it, you have to have a pretty specialist interest to sit and watch a 90-minute silent black and white movie these days), you'll know the part Schreck played from the clips, stills and spoofs that pepper popular culture. The bald, pointy-eared, spike-toothed, claw-fingered ghoulish silhouette which climbs a flight of stairs and terrified generations to come.

But Max Schreck was more, much more than a silver screen vampire. He was a stage actor of phenomenal renown in Germany, a performer of admirable and admired talent who conquered comedy and tragedy, romance and horror, cabaret and recital. He worked with Bertolt Brecht and Max Reinhardt, and despite his forbidding countenance, was actually a very cultured, thoughtful and nature-loving individual who preferred the forest to the city and was devoted to his beloved wife of 26 years.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Dark North & Hungry Jane (The Space on Niddry Street, Edinburgh Fringe)

David Skeele, the writer and director of these two tales of horror all the way from Pennsylvania, says that when fright is done right, it should include "brilliant special effects, psychological suspense and believable performance by actors".

Which is why it's all the more disappointing that Slippery Rock's presentation of Hungry Jane and Dark North fails in much of this. Neither tale is scary, merely spooky. Neither tale has "brilliant special effects" - a rocking chair which rocks itself would be unsettling if the motor and wire which powered it were not so visible. And although there's undeniable mystery in the stories presented, there is very little suspense generated in what is a sadly under-powered production.

Two Kittens and a Kid (The Space on the Mile, Edinburgh Fringe)

Story is all. You can have all the flash-bang-wallop of a West End jukebox musical, or the lavish art design and pomp of a grand opera, but without an engaging story to tell, you have nothing.

And boy, does Christopher Wilson's intensely personal and moving Two Kittens and a Kid have a humdinger of a story, made all the more affecting because it is absolutely true. These things happened to him, and their legacy goes on. How Wilson manages to perform this show day in, day out is astounding. Two Kittens and a Kid (A Gay Man Raising His Inner Diva) is obviously his catharsis, and he scoops up the audience on a truly rollercoaster ride along the way.

So what is this story about? It would be unfair to give too much away, as it is the way the audience is drawn into Wilson's experiences that makes the ending all the more powerful. It's best not to know in advance how this show ends, as it would most definitely lose its strength, but it wouldn't be worth seeing (or writing a show about) if there weren't heartache and tragedy.

F*cking Men (Assembly George Square Studios, Edinburgh Fringe)

Joe DiPietro's F*cking Men is basically a sexually transmitted disease in theatrical form. Based upon Arthur Schnitzler's controversial 1897 play Le Ronde, it shows a cavalcade of ten gay male characters getting off with one another in turn, with one partner leading us to the next vignette, and so on. It's an x-rated game of Pass the Parcel.

Whereas Schnitzler's original was purely heterosexual (the whore and the soldier, the soldier and the parlour maid, the parlour maid and the gentleman etc), the idea of a relay race of sexual encounters lends itself much more easily to the gay scene in the 21st century, because that's how it broadly works. There is generally more promiscuity on the gay scene, with men picking up partners for one night stands as easily as swiping right or left on an app, or provocatively rearranging a towel in the sauna.

The original 2015 production of F*cking Men at the King's Head Theatre in London featured a larger cast of performers than this Edinburgh transfer, which sees three actors take on multiple roles throughout the 60 minutes. The play only tells tales where there are two to tango, so having three actors just about copes with the flow, but it's interesting to see how easily the performers flip from one character to their next, and how director Mark Barford has adapted original helmsman Geoffrey Hyland's dynamics.

Callisto: A Queer Epic (The Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh Fringe)

There's one scene in Callisto: A Queer Epic which works so well, and is so funny and enjoyable to watch, that it makes the bits that don't work stick out more. Three actors are filming a porno about a straight couple who engage their wannabe nanny to try and spice up their sex life. But while the female actors are ready and willing to go, the male actor is more interested in contextualising the film's spurious narrative, wondering if the couple's imaginary children are safely tucked up in bed so they won't accidentally happen across this scene of carnality in the living room.

The children are not real, but in the actor's head, he needs to know it all makes sense. It makes for genuinely funny material, and it's written and performed so beautifully that it casts something of a shadow over the rest of the "epic".

Friday, August 12, 2016

Deal with the Dragon (C Nova, Edinburgh Fringe)

We all have a dragon. We may not all deal with the dragon, but there's always one there, over our shoulder, behind our back, peering at us around corners and from under beds. And while it may be left exquisitely open as to quite what the dragon represents in San Franciscan Kevin Rolston's rollicking tour de force, it's obvious that it can be a force for evil just as much as good.

Western culture tends to see the dragon as a ferocious symbol of power, grandeur and trickery, but in Eastern culture the dragon is seen as lucky, benevolent and wise. Rolston's interpretation of the dragon is all of these things wrapped into one, monstrous character called Brenn, an arts critic from the Black Forest who swoops into people's lives when they are feeling vulnerable or when they are at a crossroads. He acts as artistic patron to painter Hunter, who is on the cusp of submitting a piece of work to a museum for a prestigious showcase. He is one of two contesting finalists, along with the deliciously camp Gandy Schwartz.

A Boy Named Sue (C Nova, Edinburgh Fringe)

"The essence of a real man is that he falls in love with a woman."

This is the opinion of one of the three characters in Bertie Darrell's heartfelt triple-monologue A Boy Named Sue, which began life as part of the young writers' programme at the Bristol Old Vic and makes its debut at Edinburgh.

The maxim by which emerging theatre company Sue Productions goes is to "represent the under-represented", and while that may not necessarily be the case as far as the LGBT community as a whole goes, within that bracket they've certainly succeeded.