Edinburgh Fringe 2012 theatre news and reviews

Posted at 2:30 pm, August 13, 2012 in Arts & Entertainment
Gulliver’s Travels

Monday August 20

Gulliver’s Travels, King’s Theatre, ★★★☆☆

Visionary Romanian director Silviu Purcărete is a regular fixture of the Edinburgh International Festival, and this typically idiosyncratic adaptation of various works by Jonathan Swift (not just ‘Gulliver’s Travels’) drew an enthusiastic, even partisan crowd on its press night. As a series of visual set pieces it’s hugely impressive: enormous shadow puppets in a playful Lilliput-inspired scene; an actual horse for Gulliver’s visit to the Houyhnhnms; a gleefully macabre homage to ‘A Modest Proposal’. As a whole, though it doesn’t really cohere into anything much beyond a series of striking scenes, apart from perhaps a half-hearted probing of Swift’s misanthropy. Purcărete was never going to cram an entire body of work into 90 minutes, but for all its visual flair, this ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ never seriously tries to grapple with the breadth of Swift’s worlds, or his savage satiric intent.

Best in the World, Northern Stage at St Stephens, ★★★☆☆

Unfolding Theatre’s ‘Best in the World’ is a show about a lot of things: the sacrifices we make for success; the British concept of ‘having a go’; the simple joy of being an enthusiastic amateur. Mostly, though, it’s about darts. With the pizzazz of a good motivational speaker, performer Alex Elliott talks us though the magic of this most British of sports, returning again and again in awestruck tones to Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor, the undisputed best in the world at the greatest of all pub games. It is a hugely entertaining show, with lashings of good-natured audience participation, bags of tiggerish enthusiasm, and a wholly committed performance from Elliott that belies the fact this was a company-devised piece. A great chaser if you’re hungry for a fresh hit of Olympics-style goodwill.

Bottleneck, Pleasance Courtyard, ★★★☆☆

This HighTide Festival production is one of several sturdily enjoyable monologues to be found on the Fringe this year. In Luke Barnes’s play, James Cooney gives a great performance as a scally-ish lad growing up in ’80s Liverpool, negotiating the pitfalls of adolescence with a good nature and a heroic lack of any sort of moral compass. A not entirely unexpected lurch into darkness towards the end shakes things up, but all in all it feels well made rather than inspired, a sturdily made, low-overheads piece that’ll probably enjoy a long life on tour.

 

Friday August 17

Monkey Bars, Traverse, ★★★★☆
Chris Goode is on to a good thing with his new show, a playful piece of sort-of-verbatim theatre in which a talented cast of adult actors – most of them middle aged – perform a series of vignettes based upon transcripts of interviews with children ages six to 11 (conducted by dialogue artist Karl James). Rather than simply have the adults playing at being kids, Goode has transposed their words and mannerismsinto the adult world: so a debate by some children on their favourite type of sweet is turned into a job interview, while a faltering attempt to understand where money comes from becomes a drunken scene in a bar.  It is a sweet, funny, occasionally sad show that makes beautiful currency out of children’s general inability to speak anything other than their minds. ‘Monkey Bars’ transfers to the Unicorn Theatre Sep 25-30; a full review will be online next week

Beats, Traverse, ★★★★☆
You’ll feel like you’ve spent the night (well, an hour and a bit) gurning away in a boggy field after watching this simultaneously euphoric and melancholic tribute to the declining days of rave culture from performer Kieran Hurley. The concept is deceptively simple: Hurley – fresh-faced and clearly not a veteran of rave – tells a story about a young lad and a middle-aged policeman’s journey to the same illegal gathering in the Scottish countryside, the former to have the first big night of his young life, the second to shut it down. The whole thing might seem a bit contrived, but Hurley delivers the performance with an eye-popping intensity that completely belies the fact he sits at his desk for the entirety. And it is thrillingly DJ and VJ’d by Johnny Whoop and Jamie Wardrop, who provide a yearning audio-visual soundtrack that makes judicious and constant use of the more beautiful and melodic music to emerge from the early ‘90s scene. The effect is utterly transportive – this is definitely as much for the dance music fans as the theatre ones.

Amusements, Summerhall,★★★☆☆
If you’re after a chokingly claustrophobic dollop of raw atmosphere, you could do a lot worse than checking out this latest work from Anglo-Spanish company Sleepwalk Collective, which monkeys with your senses something rotten via a churningly dense, droning soundtrack relayed via headphones and tricks of light that frequently makes you feel like you’re dreaming or drowning. I’m not so sure about the contribution of the company’s iara Solano Arana, however. An unquestionably beautiful woman, she whispers demi-erotic, vaguely fairground-themed nothings into the mic for the shows 45 minutes. It’s definitely titillating, in a creepy way, but it doesn’t really ever go anywhere, and the show has the air of a slightly directionless David Lynch homage.

Bullet CatchThursday August 16

As of 1.52pm GMT on Friday April 27th 2012, This Show Has No Title, Traverse, ★★★★☆
Even more meta than ‘Appointment with the Wicker Man’ is Daniel Kitson’s new theatre piece, a non-show about not being able to write a show which the comedian manages to pull off via a combination of charm, wit and sheer audacity. It begins with Kitson walking out, sitting down, and beginning to read from a script about a man walking out, sitting down and beginning to read from a script. In this show’s strangely negotiable hall of mirrors, we are spun a yarn about a trio of Daniel Kitsons – the one sat in front of us, reading the script, a ‘real’ Kitson in the play (called Daniel) and a ‘fictional’ one (called Dan). All of them are trying to work on a story about the definitely fictional Maximillian Cathcart, a charmingly eccentric old loner of the sort that populates every Kitson theatre show, almost to the point of self-parody. It’s kind of tricky to explain in print, but basically it works, partly because it’s Kitson’s funniest theatre show (and an interesting companion piece to his current stand-up set), partly because behind the smoke and mirrors and multiple personas, it all feels strangely personal, almost confessional. It is extravagantly sold out at the Traverse, but keep your eyes peeled for London dates, which will inevitably sell out in minutes.

Bullet Catch, ★★★★☆
Playwright and performer Rob Drummond has essentially taught himself for how to do magic – or at least a fair smattering of illusions – for this entertaining, surprisingly understated show that explores free will via a series of tricks, culminating in the infamous stunt of the title, wherein the magician appears to catch a bullet fired by an audience volunteer between his teeth. The framing device is the story of William Henderson, a (possibly fictional) early twentieth century magician who was killed in an apparent misadventure when a bullet fired by a hapless volunteer was eminently not caught; over the course of the evening Drummond gently works away at the question of whether it was choice or the inevitable that brought Henderson to this point. A clever, thought-provoking show, plus you get to see a man shot in the face: what’s not to like?

Appointment with the Wicker Man, Assembly Rooms, ★★★☆☆
For its main contribution to the 2012 Fringe, National Theatre of Scotland has essentially turned in an enormo-budget version of the type of daft meta comedies that pretty much every student on the Royal Mile is trying to lure you into. Greg Hemphill and Donald McLeary’s play concerns an atrocious am-dram society living on the remote Scottish island of Loch Parry, who have blithely decided to stage a ‘Glee’-inspired adaptation of seminal ‘70s horror film ‘The Wicker Man’. They have lured the hotshot star of a Glasgow cop drama (Sean Biggerstaff) over to play the role of Neil Howie, the mainland policeman lured to his doom in the film; are Loch Parry’s population of bumbling cranks all they seen? Or will life imitate art? It’s spectacularly silly, a little bit sub-‘Noises Off’, and generally very funny. It goes for easy laughs, but it generally gets them, plus Hemphill and McLeary’s love of the films genuinely shines through, while it’s nice to see that director Vicky Featherstone – shortly to take over at the Royal Court – clearly has a sense of humour.

Meine Faire Dame

Wednesday August 15

Meine Faire Dame – ein Sprachlabor, Lowland Hall, Royal Highland Centre, ★★★★☆

In many ways my conservative British critic’s brain is hideously ill-equipped to pass judgement on legendary German director Christoph Marthaler’s, erm, ‘interpretation’ of ‘My Fair Lady’. But I do know I liked it. This Swiss production for the Edinburgh International Festival is European director’s theatre at its most unapologetically irreverent: it probably says all that you need to know that Lerner and Loewe, writers of the original musical, don’t receive a credit, while George Michael does, for Wham!’s ‘Last Christmas’, one of several new additions to the musical numbers (including works by Wagner and, um, Bryan Adams). In summary, ‘Meine Faire Dame’ is absolutely batshit mental, apparently telling the story of phoeneticist Henry Higgins and cockernee flower girl Eliza Doolittle in reverse order, with multiple Elizas, manifold digressions and a man dressed as Frankenstein’s monster playing organ. It is also extremely funny, provided you happen to have an appreciation for the absurd, as well as being brilliantly acted and gorgeously sung. At best I only have theories as to what it was actually *about* (language, mostly), but I’d recommend to any adventurous souls with a sense of humour, though be warned: it did seem to seriously offend at least half of the audience.

Angels, Traverse Theatre, ★★★☆☆

Actor Iain Robertson – who Fringe buffs will remember from the excellent 2010 comedy ‘My Romantic History’ – offers a bravura performance as Nick Prentice, a man at the edge of his tether, in this hallucinogenic comic monologue from Ronan O’Donnell. There is no set, just the empty Traverse 2 floor, which an increasingly agitated Robertson occupies entirely as he runs around in both literally and metaphorical circles, slowly coming to the point about why exactly it is he recently found himself being brutally interrogated down the local police station. For downtrodden charisma and sheer physical effort, Robertson’s performance is worth admission alone. But despite frequent flashes of salty brilliance, I found O’Donnell’s knotty language and bizarre digressions rather hard work, and often struggled to hold on to the show’s thread.

Red, Like Our Room Used to Feel, Summerhall, ★★★★☆

This 20 minute, one-on-one performance from poet Ryan Van Winkle isn’t listed in the Fringe brochure, but is eminently worth checking out as a nice add-on to any trip to the Summerhall. In a tiny broom cupboard, Van Winkle has created a cosy bedsit, in which you are invited to sit down, have a brew, and select an envelope of his supple, nostalgia-drenched poems to be performed for you alone. After ten minutes or so he exits, leaving you free to explore the beautifully detailed room while a gorgeous ambient soundtrack plays on. Simple, yearning and effective.

 

Flaneurs, Summerhall, ★★★☆☆

This performance piece from Edinburgh-based artist Jenna Watt offers an alternately cute and chilling exploration of urban violence and the lingering damage the memory of it can do to one’s relationship of a city. Which obviously sounds kind of grim, and some of case studies Watt cites are beyond horrific. But with her smiling, twinkly-eyed demeanour and insistence on using a toy giraffe as stand in for her friend who was hospitalised after being beaten to a pulp on a London train, Watt smartly sugars her bitter pills. The fact it’s such an appealing performance makes much of what she says all the more upsetting – would any of us have intervened to help her friend, who was attacked in a carriage full of people? We have to conclude that we might not have done. After a gut churning piece of audience participation at the climax, the optimistic ending felt a little contrived to me, but Jenna Watt is very much a talent worth watching.

 

Morning at the Traverse Theatre

Tuesday August 14

All that is Wrong, Traverse Theatre, ★★★☆☆

Belgian provocateurs Ontroerend Goed walk hand in hand with controversy; some of the reviews for last year’s Edinburgh Fringe show ‘Audience’ came fairly close to calling for them to be burnt at the stake. ‘All that is Wrong’, however, is confrontational only in how unconfrontational it is. It largely consists of Koba Ryckewaert – at 18 a veteran of two of the company’s ‘teenager’ shows – drawing an enormous flow diagram in chalk, mapping out the world and all the bad things in it. Initially I did wonder if the joke was somehow on us, but once you become accustomed to the piece’s rhythms there is something elegant and poetic about Ryckewaert’s futile attempt to logically transcribe the enormity of her frustrations. Her mumbling shyness and the earnestness with which she goes about a task none of us would ever attempt gives her a strange air of purity, sanctity even, and there is something unsettling about the interjections of largely passive co performer Zach Hatch, whose occasional, mild questions feel brutally intrusive.

Morning, Traverse Theatre, ★★★★

It’s safe to say that anyone expecting Simon Stephens’s ‘play for young people’ to be a kinder, cosier affair than his usual work would be way off the mark: it’s not giving anything away apart from the levels of bleakness we’re talking about to say its last lines are: ‘There is only terror. There is no hope’. A brutally hilarious tale of teenage frustration, it covers relatively familiar territory for Stephens. But director Sean Holmes offers a masterclass in playful malevolence and Brechtian absurdity, like one of his brilliant comedy productions for Filter gone over to the dark side. And there’s a star making turn from young actor Scarlet Billham as Stephanie, a girl hovering somewhere between boredom and psychosis, whose restless rattling of her life’s cage leads her to commit a terrible act. If it’s more stylishly visceral than actively profound, but this production’s impact is ferocious. ‘Morning’ transfers to the Lyric Hammersmith Sep 4-22; a full review will be online next week

2008: Macbeth, Lowland Hall, Royal Highland Centre, ★★★☆☆

Though it’s a hassle bussing it to the out of town Highland Centre for this International Festival Production, the payoff is indubitably worth it. This place is HUGE, and the three tiered set of Polish company TR Warszawa’s epic Iraq-set take on the Scottish Play is mind-boggling in its scale, the size of a couple of large houses. The list of warnings for audiences of a nervous disposition is also hilariously long, with everything from flashing lights and nudity to flaming explosions and gunfire. Grzegorz Jarzyna’s production is about as close as you’re going to get to seeing an action blockbuster performed on a stage, and it’s tremendously exciting stuff, and certainly one of the more accessible shows within Warszawa’s oft hallucinogenic repertoire. Cezary Kosinski’s’s eerily calm, Putin-like Macbeth is a compelling, original take. But his and other individual performances felt overwhelmed by the sheer spectacle; I managed to miss Aleksandra Konieczna’s Lady Macbeth dying because I was looking at the wrong bit of the set.

Mess

The Olympics may be over, but across the border the UK’s biggest arts festival is only just entering its second week proper. So with no sport for a short while, why not fill that aching void in your life with a series of short theatre reviews from the Edinburgh Fringe and International festivals?  Time Out theatre will be presenting a daily updated blog of acting theatre editor Andrzej Lukowski’s review from oop north, plus stay tuned for full length review of anything with a London transfer screwed on.

Monday August 13

Without You, Underbelly Bristo Square, ★★★
If Jonathan Larson’s ‘Rent’ is a very American musical, then Anthony Rapp – one of its original stars -  is a very American performer. He delivers this autobiographical one man show with songs with the megawatt charisma of a motivational speaker, bounding, gesticulating and emoting without inhibition, nary a shred of cynicism to be found. It’s an engaging performance, even if one gets the feeling he’s performing more to himself than us: there isn’t much intimacy or audience engagement in this show, despite its confessional tone. But any thinness is covered by the music: Rapp has been singing the songs from ‘Rent’ for almost two decades now, but the smattering performed here are dispatched without an iota of tiredness in an electrifying, emotive performance. Powered by a slick five piece band but stripped of some of the more egregious rock opera bombast, these renditions of the likes of ‘La Vie Bohème’ and ‘Seasons of Love’ are as moving and muscular musical theatre performances as you’ll see on any stage this year. ‘Without You’ transfers to the Menier Chocolate Factory Aug 29-Sep 15; a full review will be online next week

Mess, Traverse Theatre, ★★★★☆
If Caroline Horton’s debut play and 2010 Edinburgh Fringe hit ‘You’re Not Like The Other Girls, Chrissy’ felt like a well-made minor work, this follow-up comes perilously close to genius and announces Horton as a major, major talent. A sort of DIY tragicomedy about eating disorders, Horton plays Josephine, an anorexic student withdrawing gracefully from her friends and the world as she slowly starves away. So far, so grim, but the production fizzes with madcap humour, mostly provided by the supporting cast of Hannah Boyde (as Josephine’s bumbling best pal Boris) and musician Seirol Davies, who constantly chips in with a fruity array of sound effects and songs, often to the great annoyance of Josephine, who is trying to fade elegantly. Alex Swift’s production is often funny, often painfully sad, and even more often has a knack of managing to be both at once. The piece was developed at BAC, and we can hope for a three week run there next year.

Blink, Traverse Theatre, ★★★☆☆
Phil Porter’s latest play – which transfers to the Soho Theatre next month – is a very peculiar mixture of twisted and twee that doesn’t quite work in Joe Murphy’s production. Cute as a pair of buttons, our young protagonists Jonah (Harry McEntire) and Sophie (Rosie Wyatt) look like the perfect couple. But things are not at all as they appear to be as they begin to explain their life stories to us. He is a runaway member of an oddball religious commune who has moved to London with almost nothing in the way of social skills. She is a sheltered daddy’s girl struggling to cope with the death of her father. When he moves in to the flat below hers, she semi-encourages him to stalk her in an effort to assuage her loneliness. As you do. Murphy’s production is sweetly twisted, but it could have been a lot funnier; its understated, cutesy dispatch here plays down the laughs in Porter’s text and left me hugely confused as to what  I was supposed to make of these two oddballs. ‘Blink’ transfers to the Soho Theatre Aug 29-Sep 22; a full review will be online next week

Forest Fringe’s ART/House, secret location
I rounded off my Saturday night with this special one-off event from Forest Fringe, live art curators and Edinburgh regulars who are largely absent from the festivities this year, in part because their usual venue – The Forest Café – has relocated to a new venue in Tollcross. Lots of art happened, in a house, basically. It was good. But the news for those who weren’t there is that one, you can now pick up ‘Paper Stages’, a book of quirky projects from Forest Fringe, from various places around Edinburgh (notably the pop-up Hunt and Darton Café), and two, Forest Fringe will be back for another two weeks at the Gate in London next April.

The Olympics may be over, but across the border the UK’s biggest arts festival is only just entering its second week proper. So with no sport for a short while, why not fill that aching void in your life with a series of short theatre reviews from the Edinburgh Fringe and International festivals?  Time Out theatre will be presenting a daily updated blog of acting theatre editor Andrzej Lukowski’s review from oop north, plus stay tuned for full length review of anything with a London transfer screwed on.

Monday August 13

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