What’s worth watching: Edinburgh Fringe 2018

Edinburgh Fringe Festival Program Launch

Skip to: The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show, The Turn of the Screw, Hunch, The Unknown Soldier, Police Cops / Police Cops in Space, Neverwant, Yen, Build a Rocket, Gratiano / The Straw Man, Proxy, Faulty Towers / The Wedding Reception, Antigone na h’Eireann, One-Woman Alien, You All Know Me, I’m Jack Ruby, Elsa, Year Without Summer, Kin

Aaagh. The big fringe has already started. Not just previews, fringe proper. I’d better get a move on.

Won’t do much of a preamble, because most of you know the rules by now. In the biggest Edinburgh Fringe ever by a notable margin, there are around 3,500 shows in the programme. I only know a fraction of these, so my recommendations should be considered a cross-section of what’s worth seeing. To keep the list down to a manageable size, I am pickier than I am at other fringes. The one thing you won’t see here are shows I’ve previously seen but wasn’t that enthusiastic about. If I didn’t love your show last time, it’s only fair to wipe the slate clean and start again.

For anyone who wants to know the detailed rules, you can go to my recommendations policy. Unless otherwise noted, all entries here run the full length of the fringe. Without further ado, let’s go:

Safe choice:

These six plays are either plays I’ve seen before and loved, or new plays from companies whose previous work I loved, where the new work plays to their strength. All these entries also have wide appeal. No play is recommended for everybody – if you don’t like that kind of play, you probably won’t feel differently about these – but if you like the sound of it based on what they say about it and what I say about it, I’m calling these as surefire bets that you’ll like them the way I did. We have got …

The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show

03-13-2018-192729-2897This is one of my perennial entries in the Edinburgh Fringe, but it was a pleasure to follow this group from the beginning. Their sets of 10-minutes plays, five per hour-long performance, started off in an oscure upper room at Roman Eagle Lodge – now it is one of the most popular fixtures in Pleasance’s programme. Good ten-minute plays are hard to find – too often they feel like awkward fragments of stories that don’t go anywhere – but Bite-Size always manages to find the good ones.

Part of their success, I believe, is Nick Brice’s ability to use the ten-minute length as an asset rather than a hindrance. It’s certainly true that you are limited with what you can tell as a story in ten minutes, but this length of time also allows you stories to explore all sorts of weird and wonderful ideas that would wear thin if the play ran any longer. And whilst you camn’t expect every play to be every cup of tea, if you see one that doesn’t appeal to you, another one will be on its way soon. Usual time, usual place, it’s at Pleasance Dome at 10.30 a.m. (not 14th or 21st) – and I strongly advise booking early as this is known to sell out days in advance. No lunchtime show of greatest hits this time, but there is another bolder lunchtime show. More on that shortly

The Turn of the Screw

CaptureBox Tale Soup impressed me, along with pretty much everyone else, with their performance of Northanger Abbey which I finally caught up with two years ago. A double-act playing romantic leads Catherine and Henry, and the rest of the characters played by puppets jointly by Noel Byrne and Antonia Christophers. I loved it for its slickness, simplicity and charm in equal measures. I’ve not had the chance to see any of their other shows, but the rest all done well with reviews.

So I’m rating their new adaptation of The Turn of the Screw as a safe bet. There is only a small amount of creepiness in Northanger Abbey, but that was staged well, so the atmospheric period horror of Henry James should go well with Box Tale’s treatment. This runs at Underbelly Cowgate at 11 a.m. And they’re not taking any days off. That’s dedication.

Hunch

hunchlandscapenew

Dugout Theatre are best known as an ensemble with a string of Edinburgh Fringe hits ranging from good to outstanding, most notably their wonderful Inheritance Blues. Lately, however, they have taken to producing the work of other artists under their name. As such, I would normally only rate this as Bold Choice, but after Nicola Wren’s Replay was such a success last year, Dugout are going back to automatic safe choice.

Writer/performer Kate Kennedy is a newcomer to Dugout Theatre, but the one thing she has in common with them is being cryptic over what the play is actually about. Hunch is a superhero whose superpower is apparently getting people to make decisions. Beyond that, your guess is as good as mine, but with such as good track record producing both themselves and others, Hunch can be rated as a safe bet from the outset. This shows at Assembly Roxy at 5.05 p.m. (not 13th).

The Unknown Soldier

This needs no introduction. It’s been on the fringe circuit since 2015 and been performed to great acclaim from basically everyone, based on a simple but powerful concept. Jack Vaughan is stationed on the western front, but not during the First World War, but after. The horrors of the trenches might be over, but new problems are brewing back home. And Jack’s monologue cleverly works in where the Unknown Soldier is – and, also, a clever twist on who he’s really addressing. Anyway, I needn’t go on, I’ve said this enough times, you really should see this if you haven’t already. It’s on Thursdays and Saturdays between the 9th and 23rd at 2.50 p.m. in The Assembly Rooms.

Grist to the Mill have their fingers in a few pies this fringe, but I’ll come on to that shortly.

Police Cops / Police Cops in Space

Also requiring no introduction are The Pretend Men. Police Cops was their big hit of 2015 and that has gone from strength to strength to strength.  It was basically a parody of every 1970s cop show ever made, vitirually working to a checklist of every chliche. Mismatched cop pair? Check. Master villain controlling all crime in the city? Check. Rookie cop seeking vengeance from master villain? Check. Manly manly 100% heterosexual scenes of chopping logs bare-chested? Check.

Such was the success, it was only a matter of time before they did a follow-up of the other overdone TV genre of the 1970s. Check. Rookie cop seeking vengeance from master villain? Check etc. etc. Both plays are very silly parodies – and they admittedly go out of their way to mug it for laughs – but the three men do a very high-energy, intricately-choreographed and very funny pair of shows. Police Cops in Space runs the full length of the fringe (not 15th or 22nd) at 9.30 p.m. The original Police Cops runs on the 13th – 26th August at 6.35 p.m. Both take place at Assembly George Square.

Bold choices

The next ones in the list are plays where I’m less certain what you’ll make of them. Most are new productions I haven’t seen before, and one is a production that split opinion. But all the groups have good track records and if this appeal to you, I believe it’s a worthwhile gamble.

Neverwant

https://files.list.co.uk/images/2018/04/20/d26b37ba1ad3daa11dd09e9443d671a8f35e223f-original-LST288726.jpgSo now we move on to Bite Size’s other project this fringe. For years, Bite Size have been experimenting with different things they can do over and above the thing they do best. They have had variable success through the years, both with audiences and reviews, but I was particularly impressed with Izzy’s Manifestoes last year. This one, however, could have a far-reaching effect on Bite Size if it comes off.

Neverwant is a play by Billy Knowelenden, who has now the longest-running member of the Bite Size actors, and is now sort-of considered an unofficial number two to official artistic director Nick Brice. In the last couple of years, however, he’s started contributing his own plays, usually set in dystopian worlds, and they’ve been of a good standard. This play is an extended version of All You Ever Wanted, where the all-knowing people on social media who tell you what you want go one step further and buy what you want without asking.

The full play, however, is a story set in this world rather than an extended version of the original story. So the bad news is that this means the part of Javier Russo as the sexy Frenchman has been cut. But it’s left wide open as to what there will be instead. No reviews registered on my radar for its Brighton Fringe run, so it goes into Edinburgh as an complete unknown, but if it goes well, who knows where it will end. It shows at 2.15 p.m. at Pleasance Courtyard.

Yen

https://chrisontheatre.files.wordpress.com/2018/08/acda9-ba4190_41ac0c3a1be84774b1bb5c063ae46d27mv2_d_4898_3265_s_4_2.jpg?w=350&h=233I very rarely recommend student theatre in Edinburgh, simply because it is almost always a complete unknown, with performers I’ve never heard of. But Fourth Wall Theatre is an exception because I’ve seen many of plays Hetty Hodgson has directed and she is excellent. I confess I have a conflict of interest at play here, because most of her plays are performed at Durham City Theatre which I help manage. For this reason, I have not written reviews of her plays, but the standard of her productions is superb and – dare I say it? – better than some professional and semi-professional groups doing similar productions. Five Kinds of Silence impressed me for her innovative re-invention of the movement, and Boys and Posh made staggering complicated blocking look like child’s play.

I don’t actually know much about the play itself, even though everyone talk about it. According to the blurb, it’s about two disaffected poverty-stricken youths whose lives consist of little more than Playstation and porn, until Jenny comes into their live and they experience affection for the first time. This is on at 12.20 p.m. at C Venues. Student theatre gets little attention because there’s gazillions of them at Edinburgh with no easy way of tell apart the good, mediocre and crap ones. I really hope Fourth Wall are given a chance, because if this goes well, the sky’s the limit.

[Procedural note: I won’t review this one because of conflict of interest rules. So don’t go reading anything into this when you cleverly notice no review appeared.]

Build a Rocket

This gets on to my list because it’s a first from the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Paul Robinson has been artistic director for two years now, but such is the time-lag between becoming an artistic director and getting your work on stage, we are still discovering what he plans. Well, one thing he’s doing – and I don’t believe this was ever done throughout the eras of Stephen Joseph, Alan Ayckbourn and Chris Monks – is take a play to the Edinburgh Fringe.

I can’t tell you much about the play, because they’re opted for a cryptic description – the only thing I know for certain is that it’s set in Scarborough. But I’ve liked what Paul Robinson’s done so far, especially And Then Come the Nightjars, he last play for Theatre 503 prior to SJT. I also liked Serena Manteghi’s performance in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, where she did a great job of being LV without trying to be Jane Horrocks. On at Pleasance Courtyard at 4.30 p.m. And no days off. Guess they think days off are for wimps.

Gratiano / The Straw Man

Now, I said that Grist to the Mill had their fingers in a lot of pies, so now let’s go through the rest. Before I go on to the plays, one interesting development is that the Rotunda Theatre that has become a key venue of Buxton Fringe is making an appearance in Edinburgh as part of Assembly George Square. It’s just the structure through – Assembly is doing the programming rather than Ross and Michelle. The good news is that the Rotunda should get a decent cut out of this. The bad news is that they are sited where Flaggergast Theatre’s omnitorium used to be, complete with double-decker bus. That will be missed.

Anyway on to the plays. The first play, Gratiano, is a very ambitious piece. I saw it at Brighton last year, and it transplants the story of The Merchant of Venice into fascist Italy. Shylock isn’t any nicer in this version, but the heroes in the original become another bunch of thugs. It is a clever but very complicated reinvention of the story (you can read my review for an idea of how complicated it gets), and as a result, this is a Marmite play where the only way you can know whether or not you’ll like it is to see it and find out. And you can find out on Wednesdays and Sundays between the 8th and 22nd at the Assembly Rooms at 12:40 p.m.

https://chrisontheatre.files.wordpress.com/2018/08/eb99c-fdb95f_fa1034063be14851b3b8d12459a383fdmv2_d_2638_2552_s_4_2.jpg?w=300&h=249The other one may be more controversial. All of Ross Ericson’s solo plays have been written in response to issues he feels strongly about. Indeed, his smash hit The Unknown Soldier was written in response to Michael Gove’s romanticised version of World War One where the plucky British chaps gave the Jerries what for thanks to the brilliant tactics of the arisotocracy. But who in the theatre world would have sided with Michael Gove? The issue in The Straw Man, however, is the alienation of the working class by a middle class who demonises them. This is a divisive issue, because I’ve many people in theatre who bang on about equality repeat some shocking casual bigotry, unironically painting the working class (or at least the wrong kind of working class) as disgusting Daily Mail-reading fatties. Playwrights have touched on this issue before – John Godber is a notable example – but this look set to take to issue head on. This shows on most days at The Assembly Rooms at 2.50 p.m. usually when the Unknown Soldier isn’t on.

Proxy

My last Bold Choice is from Caroline Burns-Cooke, who wrote and performed the widely-acclaimed And The Rope Still Tugging Her Feet.  I caught up with this in Buxton last year, and it’s a depiction of 1980s Ireland when unmarried mothers were still sinful hate figures, and a culmination in the Kerry Babies scandal, where the authorities dug their heels in over a murder investigation long after their prime suspect was obviously innocent.

I wanted to see this follow-up and Brighton earlier this year, but I was thwarted by scheduling. It explores the uncomfortable world on Munchausen’s Syndrome by proxy. The normal version of Munchausen’s Syndrome is an addiction to medical attention – the proxy is where the addiction become medical attention on family members, often by making them ill on purpose, and in this story it is Gypsy who’s on the receiving end of her mother Dee Dee. But we can expect from Caroline Burns Cooke something more nuance than victims and monsters, and instead we can expect to hear why this happens. This shows at Gilded Balloon Teviot at 11.00 a.m.

You might like …

Next on the list are acts I’ve seen before. Like safe choice, if you like the sound of the acts I’m confident you’ll like these, but they have more specific appeal. Here’s what they are, your call.

Faulty Towers / The Wedding Reception

https://i0.wp.com/www.interactivetheatre.com.au/theweddingreception/images/slider/img1.pngBilled an interactive dining experience, these two plays have been doing the rounds for a few years and a very popular. I finally saw The Wedding Reception last Edinburgh Fringe. Confusingly, this took place in a hotel where there were two real weddings going on at the same time – it’s lucky I didn’t see a bride shout at a groom “You bastard Malcolm!” or it would have got really confusing. But I digress. The Wedding Reception takes place over a three-course meal. During the eating, the wedding party interact with the guests. Between the courses, we have the story.

It’s fair to say both of these are meant to be fun productions rather than anything that taxes the brain, but these plays are more than just a play watching the meal – it’s fully integrated into the action. And one unexpected effect I discovered was the it brought together complete strangers on the same table who discussed their fringe experiences. Be warned this is not cheap – this is a three-course meal in a hotel in Edinburgh in August after all – but if you want something different, or even if you want a different way to unwind than a normal meal, this is the thing for you. This is at The Principal (that’s a hotel in the New Town) at various times – but obviously you’ll need to book ahead to get your food.

Antigone na h’Eireann

I haven’t yet written up Buxton Fringe yet, but this production from Aulos is interesting. Aulos have done a mixture of new plays and classic Greek plays, but this I think is the first time they’ve tried to fuse the two together. This is a take on Antigone, but transplanted to a Northern Ireland in the near future, where a hard border has re-ignited the old troubles.

I will advise you that this play works, but not necessarily on the level it was meant to. Brexit is only incidental to the plot, merely serving as a back-drop to the Troubles renewed. And I do need to say that Aulos plays fast and loose with the original story here, almost to the point where it’s better to think of this as a new story rather than a reinvention of an old one. But what I liked about this was a three-way power-struggle. In one corner, an upstart paramilitary group aspiring to restart where the IRA left off; in another, an upstart loyalist group just as will to play dirty; and in a third corner, a Sinn Fein MLA torn between the old days and the new. The other thing Aulos brings to this is the unique style of staging. It’ll be interesting to see how this goes down. This shows at 6 p.m. at Paradise at the Vault.

One-Woman Alien

https://pbs.twimg.com/profile_images/991282683077693440/0gceDOcp_400x400.jpgThis was a big hit for Cast Iron Theatre in Brighton so an Edinburgh transfer was always going to be on the cards. Helen Rose-Andrews is playing Sigourney Weaver playing Ellen Ripley, along with everyone in the film. It’s pretty much the format you can expect from these one-man/one-woman shows. A lot of silliness and a budget that makes The Blair Witch Project look like The Fast and the Furious 8. Some of these shows are over-dependent on already knowing the film in question, but this one is easy follow regardless.

One thing that might not to be in everyone’s tastes in the lengthly digressions into gender politics and Hollywood casting. There is of course a debate to be had – whether so much of the this play should be turned over to it is another question. So depending on your personal tastes, when we reach this bit you will be going either “Yeah, you tell them!” or “Yes, we know, get on with it”. But it’s certainly a fun hour to have and a suitably energetic performance to go with it, and it’s at 2.30 p.m. at Sweet Grassmarket

You All Know Me, I’m Jack Ruby!

This is an unexpected return to the fringe circuit. I saw Clifford Barry’s solo play in 2013, and not having heard anything since, assumed it must have run its course, but five years later, it’s back. The key man in every conspriacy wingnut’s favourite conspiracy theory, Jack Ruby sits his cell, waiting for the endlessly-stalled trial for killing the killer of everyone’s favourite president. Solo biopics, do, of course, have to work hard to stand out from all the other solo biopics in Edinburgh, but this was an interesting play that has a laugh at some of the more outlandish theories and looks instead at what might have driven him to do this. It’s at The Space on North Bridge at 9.35 p.m. on the 3rd-18th August (not Sundays).

Elsa

And finally, this show stick in my mind for being different. Sometimes billed as theatre, sometimes music, sometimes comedy and sometimes storytelling, this is a mix of all four. Isobel Rogers tells the story of Elsa, on an ordinary day working in the coffee shop, with a medley of songs touching on the lives of the people who come in. For once, this is a short run and – a very rare sight in Edinburgh – a short run in a supervenue. So this is at Pleasance Dome at 9.40 p.m. on the 16th-19th August.

Wildcards

And before moving on to a quick list of comedy picks, two things on the wildcard lists. I don’t know whether or not these are any good, but they have nonetheless grabbed my interested and I’m interested to see how they do.

A Year Without Summer

As well as One-Woman Alien, writer Andrew Allen is also bringing a play about Mary Shelley and the origins of Frankenstein. Unusually for this blog, Andrew Allen grabbed by interest because of his work as a reviewer – he’s gained respect from a lot of people, and even I’ve been inspired by his principles of “Say something nice, say something helpful”. So I’m naturally interested by what happens when he crosses to the other side. I wanted to catch this in Brighton, but that run got unexpectedly cancelled. Hope to catch it this time. It runs at Sweet Grassmarket at 5.30 p.m. (not Wednesdays).

Kin

My other wildcard pick is Max Dickins. I saw The Trunk a couple of years ago as a lucky dip, and this one stuck in my mind as something different. A touching story from the point of view of a young man on a temporary job in the Coroner’s office, a visit to the home of a woman who died alone becomes a quest to change her from an entry in the deaths register back to the woman who people know and love. This new play looks like a similar formula, this time with two estranged sisters forced to reunite after 20 years as their father is dying. I liked The Trunk for its compassion and humanity, and if that comes across here, it should work well. See it at Underbelly Cowgate at 4.00 p.m.

From the comedy

And the final embarassingly late section is some comedy picks. I’m a theatre blogger and not a comedy blogger so this will be quick, but here are some shows I’ve seen on the fringe circuit for one reason or another that I rate as worth a visit:

Best of Beasts

Most of you know the score now, but for anyone unused to this: they’re a three-man sketch group, except they’re not really a sketch group. What happens instead is that after the first few sketches (usually terrible jokes), they begin to bicker and go off into their own bouts of pomposity/weediness/nakedness. I was wondering how a “best of” show would work, but I saw this is Brighton and it’s a fusion of their best/worst sketches and their best/worst displays of pomposity/weediness/nakedness. This is just a short run, though, on the 16th-16th August at 8.20 p.m. in Pleasance Dome. Just brace yourself for the return of the naked baker sketch.

Brain Rinse

Most of the entries in my comedy listings are returning groups to Edinburgh that return year after year, but for a change I’m going to mention a newcomer. Brain Rinse is a character comedy show I enjoyed at this year’s Buxton Fringe, mostly silly, with a lot of audience participation. Mike Raffone is a good showman and it’s a fun hour. There is also an opt-out from audience participation with you don’t want to do that – but there’s a catch. See this at The Space at Surgeon’s Hall at 7.10 p.m.

Imaginary Porno Charades

I was a guest on this game show in Brighton Fringe 2016, not knowing what to expect, but it’s basically charades. Of imaginary porn movies – you know, the variety where we’re not that bothered about the production values of the red-hot gang-bang action as long as you get a suitably witty title, such as The Big Gang Bang Theory or Brighton Cock (those titles were my ideas – okay, I may have been over-thinking them). Until last year, there were three men who were the recurring hosts on Thursday to Sunday, but this time, they’re running Tuesday to Sunday with a variety of guest hosts and captains. And a lot of them are women, striking a major blow for equality and proving that women are just as capable as men in engaging in immature toilet humour. It runs at Sweet Grassmarket at 10 p.m. except Mondays.

The Dark Room / The Dark Room for Kids

Right, how do I explain this in a paragraph? It’s a bit like one of those text adventure games from the 1980s where you have multiple choice options, except that the outcomes are even more unfair and arbitrary than the aforementioned 1980s games – at least those spared you choice of “Check Pocket” or “Czech Pocket”. Also involves the audience joining in with “You awake to find yourself in a dark room” and the classic ending “Ya Die! Ya Die! Ya Die! Ya Die! Ya Die!” This might not make any sense to anyone who doesn’t know 1980s text adventure games, but you’ll pick it up as you go along. A recent addition in the children’s version of the show, which I’m told is virtually the same show but without the swearing, which has been a surprise success in spite of that generation know nothing but Sega Megagamecubes or whatever it is these days. The grown-up show is, at always, at 8.00 p.m. at Underbelly Cowgate, whilst the children’s version is at Gilded Balloon teviot at 5.30 p.m.

Doktor James’s Bad Skemes / Beast Klub

Another show to straddle the adult/child divide is Doktor James, this time the other way round. Bad Skemes is meant to be a children’s show about an incompetent supervillian constantly put down by his superhero twin brother James-Man, but the most hardcore fans are the grown-ups. Certainly when I saw this at the Vault in London (which I loved – the props falling apart just added to the fun) there were lots of adults and one child. There are more children coming to the Edinburgh shows – I guess the Child Catcher hasn’t finished in London yet – and that’s at 1.20 p.m. at Sweet Grassmarket (not Wednesdays).Alternatively, for two nights only, we have the new show Doktor James’s Beast Klub, which does has rules one and two. That is on the 13th-14th August at 9.30 p.m., so I guess this is a grown-up’s show.

Notflix

This improvised musical ensemble is a prime example of what happens when the Edinburgh Fringe goes right. Two years ago, when I saw their improvised version of the Titanic (you know, where it doesn’t sink – it was just the evil Captain with the English Accent who wanted it it), in one of the smallest spaces in Gilded Balloon. Now they have one of the biggest spaces in the same venue, and a four-piece band comes as standard. Improvised troupes often come under criticism for scripting more than they’re letting on, but Notflix genuinely does stuff on the fly, included words, melody, harmony and chords, to the better standard of some rehearsed musicals. On at 6.00 p.m. at Gilded Balloon Teviot.

Susan Harrison is a Bit Weepy

Susan Harrison is one half of the hilarious Two Stars Podcast, which is especially hilarious for anyone who’s had run-ins with reviewers, especially ones who lose their temper after being caught giving bad reviews to female comedians. Allegedly. Anyway, Susan and Gemma both have their own shows too, but whilst Gemma is currently touring with a show she’s developed and polished, Susan has embarked on a new series of character comedy / solo sketches. This was a fun thing I watched in Brighton – it did had a bit of a work in progress feel then, but I’m confident it will be slick and polished for Edinburgh. This is on at 1.05 p.m. at Black Market.

Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho / Queen of Club Nights

I confess – I missed Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho when putting together my Theatre recommendations. Had I spotted it earlier, it would have gone straight to the list of Safe Choices. It’s going to be a tall order to explain how the Prime Minister everyone either loves or loves to hate became the national favourite nightclub hostess, but I can refer you to my Vault Festival review for that. But what I can sum up quickly is that behind the silly concept is some very intelligent political insight, and it didn’t go for the easy targets but looks more deeply at what led to section 28. The play is at Pleasance Courtyard at 10.00 p.m. (not Wednedays). Then following this is Queen of Club Nights, which I haven’t seen but I can safely guess is a variety show with probably a heavy presence of gay miners with big bushy moustaches. That is at Gilded Balloon Teviot on Th/Fr/Sat at midnight.

And that’s the list done. Sorry for the late completion. Enjoy your fringe.

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