REVIEWS: Skip to: The Red, Testament of Yootha, Great Grimm Tales, The Red Hourglass, The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show, Will, or Eight lost years in Shakespeare’s Life, The Rebirth of Meadow Rain, Rich Bitch, Moby Dick, Princess Party, Myra, Showstopper, Bad Girls Upset by the Truth, Stanley
Oh shit, it’s nearly 2020. I really ought to start my Edinburgh Fringe coverage in the same year. Seriously though, apologies for everyone waiting to see their name in lights in the roundup – I won’t repeat the circumstances that caused me to fall behind so much, but I’ve touched on it in the last two articles. But that’s hopefully behind me now. So let’s make a start on this.
Last year’s big theme of Edinburgh Fringe was the cost of taking part in this fringe. This year, the debate has moved on to the size. Size and cost have always been linked, but this time round the debate has widened to the effect on the city of Edinburgh as a whole. Does the fringe make the city unusable for the people who live there? Some people say breaking point is being reached. The most notable thing, however, is now what’s being said, but what’s not being said. Only a few year ago, announcements that the fringe was its biggest ever were shouted from the rooftops by the Festival Fringe Society – this year, they barely mentioned this.
One stat that is watched very closely is whether ticket sales growth is keeping up with growth of the fringe. The simplified theory has always been that if the fringe grows by x%, ticket sales must grow by x% to keep it sustainable, but is this too simplistic? This year the growth was very uneven over different venues. But there’s no easy way to control the numbers at an open festival, and we will just have to wait and see next year what becomes of this.
Also at the fringe, The Scotsman contained to alienate everybody of any respect they had, but I’ve gone on enough about that story. You can read it here.
Instead, let’s get on to the reviews. I probably should mention, in relation for my reason for being so late with the roundup, that I was about in the depths of my hole round about August. Nothing was giving me much joy back then, and the best a play could do was for me to recognise as something that would have given me pleasure had I been in a normal state. Sorry for offloading personal problems here, but it’s only fair to give the caveat that I wasn’t in my normal state when watching these plays. But there were still some that I could tell stand out, and that is where we start.
Pick of the Fringe:
So the roundup starts, as always, with the plays that stood out the most. It varies from fringe to fringe on how easy it is to pick a list, but this time round there were seven+plus+three that were a clear cut above the rest:
The first pick of the fringe comes from is a big name, and this time I mean really big: Marcus Brigstocke. As we are aware by now, being famous is no guarantee of fringe success, as Frank Skinner and Carrie-Moss have learned. And given how quickly famous names can be mauled by the critics, it would be understandable if Brigstocke had some nerves about penning a serious play, but he needn’t have been. The Red is a simple but moving play about dealing with loss and keeping an old demon at bay.
Benedict is in his late father’s wine cellar, reading a letter sent by his executor. Benedict’s Father has tasked his son with the task of dividing up his prized vintage collection between the family, with Benedict chosen because he doesn’t drink. But there is one particular 41-year-old bottle referred to in his letter, bought the year Benedict was born – “the red”. Having never had the chance to drink the wine together, now might be a good time, so the father’s letter says. But Benedict is an alcoholic who has been teetotal for 23 years. Such is the addictive power of alcohol to alcoholics that even one glass could send you back to where you were – Benedict knows too well, having seen the fate of less fortune people he had therapy with.
We know this because this, along with the rest of the play, is revealed through a conversation between father and son We know all along this is nothing more than an imagined conversation in Benedict’s mind, but the script handled his well. Benedict’s dad is a father as recalled by the son shortly after he retired, and the entire discussion over whether to drink a glass of wine is really a struggle with himself. Brigstocke works in the backstory casually – Benedict’s sister’s relationship, for example, is revealed by passing comment in the letter about giving her the champagne on the off-chance her boyfriend actually proposes. But the story is about Benedict’s past, and the first we hear about his alcoholism is the father saying he’d originally intended to share the bottle on a special occasion, like his son’s 21st – but that’s not an option as that’s when he was in rehab. Regrets over the father-son relationship are also expressed, with the father he’d never had the chance to do a father’s job once the therapists took over caring for Benedict. And Benedict gives a convincing depiction of life on the outside being unable to join in his friends’ drinking – Brigstocke’s writing helped, perhaps, by his own battle with the drink.
One small but irritating directorial/staging decision was to put the set so close to the front of the stage, limiting the view of the people in the back rows. I could see this but someone a little shorter might have had problems. The cellar set itself was great, however. I also liked the touches with the directing. At some points, father and son talk without facing each other; as the intensity increases, it becomes more like a normal conversation as the two face each other. Intentionally or not, this does well to create the impression of an imaginary conversation ebbing between the real and the unreal.
The Red is a slow-moving play. On the whole this pace suits the play – this is about exploring two characters with a lot of history rather than fast-moving events – but the play might have benefited from shaving off a few minutes at some of the slower-moving points. But I’m please to say that in spite of my doubts over how you could develop the story over whether or not to have a drink, it worked. In the end this is resolved in a way I can’t possible refer to without a massive spoiler, just to say it’s clever and subtle. Make sure you were listening earlier or you might miss it. This was originally part of a radio series where comedians wrote radio plays, in which case it must be asked how Pier Production got this right where BBC Debut got it so wrong. At the end of the day, though, how famous the writer is matters for little – see it on the strength of the script.
Full disclosure: I reviewed this on a press ticket. I don’t normally say who I did and didn’t get press tickets from, but for something as high-profile as this it is possible my approval is skewed by the flattery. However, judging from the sell-out audiences, it looks like I’m not alone with the verdict.
Testament of Yootha
Caroline Burns Cooke is a highly respected name on the fringe circuit. After two plays examining two uncomfortable issues with objectivity and nuance, her third play is about the life of Yootha Joyce, a much loved sitcom star who drank herself to death at the age of 53. I had high hoped she would bring the same level of thoughtfulness and humanity that she brought to her other plays, and she did. I confess, however I’d not paid nearly enough attention to the other respected fringe name in the credit: director Mark Farrelly. Testament of Yootha is Burns Cooke’s first foray into solo biopics, but Farrelly already has two of these under his belt. And the style that’s served his plays so well comes through here. That doesn’t necessarily mean the format of the play is his idea; it could also be that the two of them have very similar ideas of how to do a solo biopic. Either way, this match is paying handsome dividends.
One of the big challenges of a biopic is that life histories are invariably too complicated to tell in full within one hour. You can sometimes get away with over-simplifying a life story, but what director Mark Farrelly is very good at is packing a lot of information into a story without losing interest, and he does this by giving emphasis to life events that steer the story. In this case, the driving factor is how society treated women who weren’t conventionally attractive, both inside and outside the acting profession. Outside, as a wartime evacuee, she was last to be picked for a home. Inside, she was cast as various prostitutes and floozies, which apparently was the done thing in those days. Apparently, hot women playing sluts only came into fashion later, once it was decided you could have tits out in films.
Surprisingly, though, society’s treatment of women, attractive or otherwise, doesn’t have much to do with Yootha’s journey to the bottle. If anything, it was the opposite: the success Yootha enjoyed in spite of a system stacked against her, in a world where the nation’s beloved George and Mildred never stopped and the star didn’t want to disappoint her fans. Before then, there is Yootha’s rise to stardom, and this is one of my favourite touches of the play. Originally, she reads her parts in a cynical “girl upstairs … whore … whore …”, but after a chance cameo in a Harold Pinter film, the roles get better. Cameos becomes roles of whole episodes, whole episodes become whole series, and Yootha’s excitement going through these milestone is one of the best moment of the play. And all of this and more is packed into an hour. The play could easily have been 30 minutes longer and not have got dull.
As a matter of personal preference, the one thing I’d have liked more clarity on is exactly what Yootha is doing in the play and what her relationship is with the audience. It’s hinted this is present day and that she doesn’t get our modern technology, but that isn’t expanded upon. Few people will notice nor care about that though. There’s a lot to get through in this play, but unlike Farrelly’s Quentin Crisp play, where I do recommend knowing the basics first, Testament of Yootha is something I reckon you can watch cold. You probably still need to concentrate – so it might not be quite a good pick if it was your 15th play in four days – but with this now joining her other two plays on tours, I expect this to do well. A good job here, in what’s one of the fringe circuit’s best success stories for succeeding when you don’t seek other people’s approval and go ahead and do your own thing.
Great Grimm Tales
Box Tale Soup’s big hit that got them known on the fringe circuit was Northanger Abbey, that combined the dignified style of Jane Austen with their innovative style combining humans and puppetry. More recently, however, their style has evolved and they’ve moved more toward Gothic-style horror – something that made a token appearance in their first hit but now dominates their plays. Dorian Grey, Turn of the Screw, and now compilation of four of the numerous tales from the Brothers Grimm, worked into one over-arching story. In this tale, a mysterious fearless youth encounters a man tending to a grave for three nights. A shifty man comes along offering a bribe to relieve watch on the final night – coincidentally the last night The Devil can claim the man’s soul for his own. The story of the man in the coffin, and other tales that become relevant in the face of the shifty stranger, become the subject of three tales, but the ultimate tales is the showdown by the grave.
Great Grimm Tales is another good watch from Box Tale Soup, but also a milestone with how they’ve evolved. One difference this time – perhaps controversial to some – is after puppets were the defining feature of their early plays, there’s little puppetry this time. But everything else in their style comes into play well. As well and their increasingly Gothic influence, their staging of numerous scene in numerous tales is handled well, and sinister-looking trees providing a ideal Grimmish backdrop for all the tales. The other recent change is that they’ve grown from a core ensemble of two to a core ensemble of three. I understand that Box Tale Soup have experimented with casting in other plays, but on the fringe circuit they have a tried and tested formula where Antonia Christophers plays all the youths and women, whilst fonder member Noel Byrne and recent addition Seb Christophers playing the other men between them, and swapping roles each night. On the night I saw it, it was Noel Byrne’s turn to play all the goodies and Seb Christophers’ turn to play all the villains. But if I didn’t know better, I would have said Seb Christophers’ parts had been written for him, because he perfect to play all the baddies and bullies, including the Devil himself.
One small but unfortunate issue was that a lot of the acting took place sitting down, and if you weren’t on the first two rows it was difficult to see this. However, unlike The Red, where this could have been easily avoided by putting the set a little further back, I couldn’t see any easy way around the problem here – an unlucky effect of the space Box Tale Soup happened to have. But don’t let that put you off – Box Tale Soup have produced another show with their own signature style, whilst keeping the clarity of the original stories. I would never have guessed Box Tale Soup would have gone in this direction, but like Sparkle and Dark, you can find your feet in one style and successfully move to another. Great Grimm Tales was down as one of my safest bets, but Box Tale delivered as I knew they would.
The Red Hourglass
Before we start, spoiler alert attached to this review: if there are any future performances of this going on and you’re planning to see it, don’t read this because it’s best for the premise to come as a surprise. The one thing I can say without giving the game away is that this was my unexpected gem of the fringe.
Okay, now that everyone who doesn’t want a spolier has gone to make a coffee for a few minutes, let us continue. This is a solo performance from Alan Bissett, who plays different characters trapped an a mysterious research facility. We know this, because that’s in the blurb. What the blurb doesn’t mention is that these characters are spiders. Indeed, when the first character talked about being part of a proud and ancient race – coupled with the fact that this is being told in the Scottish Storytelling Centre – it had me fooled. Not that the first spider sees much difference between the two. This common spider is pretty sure it was one of his ancestors’ persistence in spinning a web that inspired Robert the Bruce himself to never give up and go back outside and defeat the English.
I probably should warn you that this play sets out to taunt you if you’re scared of spiders. Next up is the recluse spider, who misses his wife and three thousand kids, and mostly liked to spend time to himself. Except when they swarm, because that’s fucking mental that is. My favourite line of the play, as a non-arachnophobe was “So we swarmed into the flat of this broad … We weren’t going to kill her … although we could have if we wanted to”. If that doesn’t put the willies up you, the black widow might. That was Bissett’s funniest performance of the whole lot, as the black widow spider was a complete psychopath.
I suppose one complaint you could make about this is that for small number of people who truly have a problem with spiders, they might be landed without warning into something they really don’t want to watch. I sympathise, but this is genuinely one of the play where content that some people might find distressing works best if it comes out of the blue. But, honestly, put your fears aside if you can. Very clever and very funny character comedy, with similar humour to Made in Cumbria. But with spiders. Unfortuantely, the run has already finished, which is a shame, because this doubtless would have sustained sales over the full fringe had it run three weeks. So keep an eye out for it instead.
The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show
This is a perennial entry in my pick of the fringe, but this time, this set of 10-minute plays has been more notable than most because it’s moved to its biggest venue ever. In some ways, it’s a bit of a pity. In the early days at Roman Eagle Lodge, it was really nice to have an intimate atmosphere of small cast and tiny audience. But times move on, and demand to see the show has gone up and up and up, audience demand was massively over capacity of Queen Dome where they’ve performed for years. Now in Pleasance Forth, around 50% bigger, they are still selling out every morning.
This time round, however, like Box Tale Soup, the most notable thing is how much and how quickly Bite Size has changed. A few years ago, The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show was indisputably the project of artistic director and Bite Size creator Nick Brice, and it was rare for any actor to hand around for more than two years. Then actor Billy Knowelden started coming back year after year, with the in-joke being “Are you still here?” But now that’s normal – there’s a core ensemble of four actors who have been part of this for years. What’s more, they are playing an increasingly bigger role in choosing which plays go to Edinburgh. In fact, I gather the process of choosing the plays is just as big a task now as actually performing them.
But enough background information, what have we got this time? Well, one thing new to this venue is that the furniture for all 15 plays is visible at the back of the stage, being brought out as and when it’s needed. I understand this decision was taken out of practicality, but I quite like this novelty, where you get to look at the furniture yet to come on stage and wonder what it’ll be for. Other than that, as usual I won’t go through every single play – there’s always one or two I don’t get, but that’s fine because if you don’t get one, there’s another coming soon. My favourites were:
- Apocalypto, which is like I Am Legend, except it’s the most rubbish zombie apocalypse ever. This does not stop our protagonist revelling in the mortal struggle for survival, even though his two fellow survivors are more interested in checking out the stuff at Aldi, if they can make it past the slow, easily-avoidable zombies.
- Stag Do, where a random employee gets invited to his boss’s stag party, only do discover he’s the only guest – a result, it turns out, of his best friend and best man who’s guilt-tripped him into a joyless party whilst his wife-to-be is enjoying her hen night.
- Hitwomen of Highbury. A meeting of three spinsters, a bit like the women’s institute, only they spend their time going round murdering people. But trust me, the people they murder had it coming because they’re horrid. Then the team stands to be broken up as their ringleader gets married to a frightful old bore. Only one thing for it.
- One of Our Comedians is Missing. Not much representation from the surrealistic comedies this year, but this one flies the flag. It begins with a scientific breakthrough when comedians (British comedians, of course) are resurrected and giving the ability to fly, leading to the comedian wars where millions of people die laughing. It’s up to the British upper echelons of the army to sort it out, with stiff upper lip, of course. And it gets even more surrealistic after this.
I didn’t check who wrote what until later, but Billy Knowelden and Thomas Wilshire account for two of these four. Seems that the in-house writing has suddenly become a integral part of the franchise.
I have one other observation before I move on. One thing I hadn’t realised is that the original performance in 2006 was registered for the fringe very late, and too late for the printed programme. The conventional wisdom is that any production that’s not in the paper programme is doomed to fail, and especially so if the only slot available at short notice is 10.30 in the morning. So the whole coffee, strawberry and croissant thing was simply a hasty decision made to try to get the morning slot to work and make a theme out of it. And flying in the face of all expectations, it worked, so they stuck with the morning slot and theme, and it went from there. Bite-Size seems to have a niche at the Edinburgh Fringe for an older audience who like a morning performance – and, of course, at a fringe the size of Edinburgh, a niche is still a massive number of people. This is almost certainly a one-off – I doubt any other company could pull off something identical – but it does go to show that some of the biggest success stories it Edinburgh are lucky accidents that come about in a way no-one could have predicted. And long may that be so.
Will, or Eight Lost years in Shakespeare’s Life
The premise of this play needs a bit of explaining. I’ve seen a lot of biopics this fringe, most of which cover the full life of a notable figure, but this is a little different – this covers the “lost years” of William Shakespeare, being the eight years history where little is known about his life. It is known that he married when he was eighteen to Anne Hathaway (not the film star, it’s someone else whose parents showed flagrant disregard for the confusion this will cause in 450 years’ time), and it’s known one of his three children died aged eleven, but beyond there few things are definite. This play is writer-director Victoria Baumgartner’s take on what happened, based on some of the different theories going around historians.
All biopics on stage – even ones with several possible versions of events to choose from – have a challenge: if a bit of the story gets boring, you can’t change it to something more exciting. But working within this limitation, Will & Co have done a good getting this story to the stage. The cast of five put on a slick production, and in spite of the absence of a set and numerous doubling up on stage, it’s easy to follow whatever your background knowledge of old Shakey. One key theme of the play is the Earl of Southampton. There is an increasing consensus that a lot of Shakespeare’s love sonnets were actually written for a man, and in this version this is the way that young Will finds favour with the aristocrat, first to look the other way over a poaching matter, and later – on discovery of a mutual love of Ovid’s Metemorphoses – as an early back of the aspiring Shakespeare, much to the chagrin of the more established Christopher Malowe. One of my favourite moments was the end of the affair. There’s only so long that 16th-century earls can stay unmarried before eyebrows are raised, and it falls to Shakespeare to compose the love letters to Southampton’s betrothed than he can neither write nor mean.
If there’s one thing I’d change about the production, it’s the contemporary references, which I don’t think fits this setting. The classical music was more fitting than the contemporary music, and I don’t think the ad-libbing in-jokes about performing at the Edinburgh Fringe was right for this play. But other things worked that I didn’t expect to. The babies in the play are represented by hand-held lights, which seemed odd until the scene where Hamnet dies, and the light is switched off at that moment. This is, of course, one of several scenes of inspiration for future plays. Pyramus and Thisbee also makes an appearance, spurred on by Will’s exasperation of it being done badly.
This is only part of the story – there’s a whole other strand with Shakespeare’s first touring company I haven’t covered yet. Personally, I would have run the story a little longer, up to the point where history picks it up again. The first known review that describes Shakespeare as an “upstart crow” might have been a good point – clearly someone didn’t like him, but this was the moment he was noticed. But for a project this ambitious and lot more difficult than most, this was really worth a visit.
The Rebirth of Meadow Rain
So the six acts above were all good, but a visit to the Edinburgh Fringe is only complete if I can come home having seen something absolutely outstanding I can rave about. With less than one day left, I was resigned to missing out this year. And then, it came. At last. Form Hannah Moss and On the Run.
The Rebirth of Meadow Rain might be labelled as cabaret and comedy in the programme, but read through the blurb long enough and you’ll see that this play is about emotional abuse. Meadow Rain has invited her best friend Miranda she’s not seen for ages to say sorry. More specifically, for calling her a “jealous bitch”. In fact, Melody has been doing a lot of apologising recently, mostly to her boyfriend Terry. However, she seems to accept him calling her all sorts of names, and she’s spent of a lot of time being sorry for making him do that to her. Alas, you don’t need to know much about this subject to know where this is going. Meadow is a relationship where the insults go all one way, and the fact she’s been cut of from the friend she’s known since childhood was all part of manipulative Terry’s plan.
Psychological abuse is a subject I think is sorely lacking in theatre. I’ve seen plenty of plays about domestic violence showing why it’s bad, but it’s only recently that people have started working out that emotionally abusive relationships are just as bad. Even so, where I have seen plays on the subject, they catalogue why it’s bad but say little else. What we see very little of is how a relationship gets like that in the first place. This applies whether or not the relationship ends up violent. Meadow is no fool, and had she been told about Terry at his worst, she would have run a mile. But when the man of her dreams walks into her tropical fish shop, she doesn’t know this. There are already some red flags – Terry’s insistence on correcting her on her own eye colour when she’s obviously right, his swiftness to say what a nightmare his ex-girlfriend was – but dopamine is a dangerous things, isn’t it?
As the relationship gets more intense, so does the controlling behaviour. Commands are disguised as romantic words. When Terry does apologise for his behaviour, he finds ways to deflect blame on to her and guilt-trip her into accepting it. The relationship never comes to blows – that is important, the whole point of this play is to show how bad things can get without. Even so, what goes on in the bedroom is far from what you’d expect from a loving relationship. Most manipulative of all is prising Meadow away from Miranda. At first, Terry always has plans for Meadow when she’d be doing something with Miranda. When the three meet, and Miranda works him out, it’s already too late – Meadow cannot see Miranda’s warnings for what they are any more. During this, and there’s a clever parallel story going on of two Angelfish being put together in one tank, with a similar relationship to Terry and Meadow’s.
This would have made a great conventional monologue, but the icing on the cake is the interactive element. Yes, the comedy and cabaret labels are there for a reason. Speech bubbles from a story book show texts. First one. Then another one. Then dozens demanding to know why she hasn’t replied. There’s too many things to go to in one review, but the most powerful device was asking the audience to write their thoughts of Terry, and Meadow reads them as Miranda giving her thoughts, and how quickly the warnings are thrown back as accusations. But it’s not all bad. I won’t tell you how we return to this as it would be too much of a spoiler, but it’s one of the most touching moments I’ve seen on stage.
I’m not an expert on this subject, but from the stories I’ve heard in real life, this is a very convincing course of events. We could really do with more stories like these, because the more clued up people are to spot the signs – either those entering into these relationships or those who care for them – the more chance that things can be stopped before they get a lot worse. But heavy depressing monologues are a turn-off. This format, part story, part party, is so much more memorable. I really hope this play will come back. And if and when it does, see it, see it, see it.
From earlier …
A reminder that there’s a special rule for Edinburgh Fringe roundups that anything in the programme that I’ve seen in the last year is eligible for the roundup – I don’t have to see it at Edinburgh itself. Even if I loved a play, it’s rare that I have time to see it again at Edinburgh, so plays I saw earlier are allowed on the basis of those performance so no-one’s unfairly excluded because I saw them too early.
So this year, there are three plays that complete the roundup:
- I saw Trainspotting Live on its tour on its Northern Stage call, and although it slightly veered into shocking for the sake of it, this immersive version was a job well done for what it set out the achieve. It’s a shame I didn’t have time to see this again, because the site-specific setting used at Edinburgh Fringe – usually a dank concrete room covered in graffiti – adds an extra layer that a theatre studio can’t offer. But you know what to expect. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. And don’t sit next to the toilet.
- Sam Chittenden is swiftly making a name for herself at Brighton Fringe and took two Brighton plays to Edinburgh this year. Metamoprhisis misses out on a technicality (I saw it last year rather than this year), but Sary goes in as it’s a good all-rounder: a retelling of local folklore of reputed witch Ol’ Sary Weaver, mixing legend with fiction and a clever ending that puts a twist on the sticky end she was meant to come to. Sary is not a one-off put part of a sting of hits at Brighton, so expect more imports from Brighton at future fringe.
- And rounding up the list, Green Knight from Buxton Fringe must go on. Like Sary, it’s another retelling of a tale mixing legend with Debbie Canon’s imagination, this time the story of Gawain and the Green Knight by the women said to be the temptress. More storytelling than conventional theatre, it still has a great theatrical effect from the use of a few props. Spaces with sound and lighting rigs are in very high and expensive demand at Edinburgh, and this is a fine example of what you can do without.
For the next two tiers, it’s a more close-run thing this year. Usually Honourable mention is for the plays that, whilst not perfect, contain things that impressed me or were otherwise memorable, but this time round, almost everything I saw has something that impressed me one way or the other. As a result, I’ve had to make some arbitrary judgements here, with a lot of this coming down to personal preference. But here’s what I ended up with.
Rich Bitch: How to make money with the power of your mind
Casha Bling is a character creation of Cristina Lark. If there’s one thing that didn’t go to plan, it’s something that nobody could have predicted – she’s too good. As we all know, Poe’s law states that the more ridiculous an idea is, the harder it becomes to tell the difference between a parody of it and the real thing. I confess, when I saw the promotional video of Casha Bling’s 1000% guaranteed get-rich-quick scheme, I had to think hard before concluding it had to be satire. Apparently, some people did actually missed the point so badly they came to the show actually expecting to be told about how to make their fortune, and one person even walked out when he realised it wasn’t. I can’t decide whether this is a testament to how brilliantly she’s done the character, or a damning indictment of the levels of idiocy humankind has sunk to.
Anyway, Rich Bitch is a satire on all these make-money-now schemes that are found on Facebook. If you’re not on Facebook, congratulations, but also: the ads you are missing out on are a kind of digital equivalent of the ones that used to say “Want to make loads of money? Send me £100 and I’ll show you how” except that they add in a load of garish filters and random hashtags. Also, with it being Facebook, it’s obligatory to show off how awesome you life is with the money you’ll definitely make of this definitely-not a pyramid marketing scheme. It’s couldn’t possibly be a pyramid marketing scheme – pryamids are three-dimensional objects and Casha Bling’s diagram is two dimensional, which makes it completely different. And look where you are on the diagram – on the second tier, so the money you give to you personal embetterment guru will definitely be outweighed by the money everyone else gives to you. And if you don’t get the money? Well, that’ll be because you weren’t believing in the money enough.
Where this format had a weakness was the middle. Once we’d established Casha Bling as the nightmare combination of scammer and inspirational quotes, whose wisdom is little more than waffle, it’s difficult to move the story forwards. There are lot references to real-life examples of Facebook charlatan bollocks, but I felt there was a lot more that could have been said there. The real opportunity, however, is the ending, as we discover she’s been found out and money’s running out. That’s only revealed in the last few minutes of the play, but I can imagine this being really effective if the cracks appear earlier, as the cracks start to show and the mask starts to slip and her desperation for money begins to show. That is where I believe the real story lies.
There’s lots this play has to say and could say more of. As well as the techniques used to scam people online and the shallow vanity perpetuated by “influencers”, there’s also the hypocrisy of people who travel the world in the name of global awareness only to treat the foreigners like servants, which was also referenced in the play, all of this potentially running alongside the downfall of a scammer who is in denial that the game is up. It’s a tough call – try to say too much and the audience remembers nothing – but I reckon getting all of this in an hour can be done. So although this is still being worked on Ritch Bitch is actually one of the play I’m most excited about. The journey from living the amoral dream to a state of denial when the game is up is a very powerful story to be told.
Ross Ericson’s latest play for Grist from the Mill isn’t unambiguously a theatre piece – there is a case to count this as storytelling. It’s some very faithful storytelling though, as told by Ishmael, the only person who can give an account of a hunt for the infamous great white whale. And the hunt is captained by Ahab, who’s determined to kill him or die in the attempt. Now, one might question what Moby Dick did to warrant the attention in the first place – and given that the original attempt to hunt him resulted in the whale smashing up one of the boats and biting Ahab’s leg off, one might think the rational thing to do would be to put this down to experience, and go hunting for some less dangerous whales. But that’s kind of the point of the story – it’s not about rationality, it’s about obsession, Ahab hell-bent on settling a score that leads him and all who follow him to their doom.
This is not an easy thing to adapt for any sort of stage production. With the original manuscript over 600 pages long, you can only put a fraction of the story in a one-hour play. But you wouldn’t guess that from Ericson’s adaptation. Even if this just edited highlights of a much longer saga, it captures the story well, from the diverse band of misfits who came together on the whaling mission, to the camaraderie of the sailors all in it together, to the ill-fated final mission as Ahab persists with increasingly suicidal offensives, this is all covered well by this hour-long story.
However, based on what I’ve seen Ericson do before, Moby Dick was surprisingly safe. Although an hour-long storytelling format staying faithful to the original story is a perfect valid and workable format, it also takes the least risks. That isn’t entirely a bad thing – so unforgiving is Edinburgh if you get it wrong, play it safe it understandable. However, there’s various things that could have been done with the staging and storytelling. It could have been presented for as a retrospective as a rambling Ishmael reflects on the folly cost so many lives. Or maybe the set that only served as background decoration could have been brought in to re-enact the story. I’m not saying this should have been done – either to these done wrong would do more harm than good. But I’ve seen Ross Ericson take a lot of gambles with his solo plays before, particularly Gratiano which took huge risks with its retelling of The Merchant of Venice before it came good.
However, Moby Dick does what it sets out to do. I would advise seeing this one when you’ve got more energy if possible, because it’s a complex story to squeeze in an hour, with the prophecy guaranteeing Ahab’s safety containing some particularly important clauses in the fine print. (Pro-tip: never assume you can’t die because of a prophecy that says you won’t until something unlikely happens. There’s always a loophole you didn’t think of.) If you know the story, you won’t be let down by Hollywood liberties. If you don’t, you will leave this story understanding why so much fuss could be made over one whale.
Princess Party is fun for everyone, but something I’d especially recommend to actors making money on the side dressing up as Disney Princesses for children’s parties. I’ve heard numerous stories of these parties, especially where the parents have way too much cash to splash. However, these anecdotes pale into insignificance compared to the stories from Beverly Hills, where there are obscenely rich people in their obscenely extravagant mansion using, one suspects, their children’s parties to one-up their obscenely rich friends.
Open to a story of a little princess who lived in a castle where she had everything her heart desired, we are soon joined by Snow White and Alice from Alice in Wonderland. Pedants will have already noted that Alice technically isn’t a Disney Princess, or indeed any kind of princess, but it’s her first day on the job and she left the costume until the last moment and this was the only one on reduction. Not that this matters, as they discover now – as a result of skim-reading the email and missing the bit about the Frozen-theme – that all the kids are dressed as Anna and Elsa. However, even this problem pales into insignificance against the more pressing issue – Snow White goes into a little too much detail about the difference between fairytale marriages and her own recently-ended marriage, whilst Alice found some cocaine left on the back seat of her Uber and couldn’t let it go to waste. And, yes, you can already guess the rest of the afternoon.
Before we get to the inevitable ending, though, we will meet the little girls’ older sisters, then a pair of chefs, and then a pair of mothers who spend a lot of time congratulating themselves on what brilliant mothers they are. The drunk/coked princesses are by far the strongest characters, but it would have been difficult to keep the joke running for a whole hour, ts the character comedy format suits the show well. My only regret was not getting more of a story about the families. I couldn’t really believe that the two mothers schmoozing with a pair of prospective business partners would end up twerking in Ann Summers gear, but this is in the comedy section so I’ll let that off. However, I did feel that after we’d heard so much about the two self-obsessed mothers with their own marriages are in various states on breakdowns and/or infidelities, there was a missed opportunity to mix the chaos with more of a backstory about how this rich family has come this unhappy state.
Oh, did I say this is a semi-improvised show? For anyone brave/foolish enough to be on the front row there’s quite a lot of roles you play, and the act works around this. I won’t give away everything, suffice to say the the fringe version ran at 10.30 so you can expect the indignities of anyone brave/foolish enough to set at the front of a 10.30 show. I gather that in real life one or both of these women were moved off princesses on to evil queens because the evil queens get to be funny, and I can see why. But sit on the front entirely at your own risk.
Lauren Varnfield first intended to perform this somewhat controversial play at Brighton in 2016, but pulled it quite late on after wanting to get the show right – after all, the Moors Murders is not a subject to treat on lightly. It finally got its premiere in Brighton two years later, where it was generally – but not universally – well-received. Now at Edinburgh Fringe, this division continued. Well, having finally had the chance to see this and judge for myself, I can say that I liked it, but I can understand why some people have a problem with this.
The one thing where everyone was agreement on is Lauren Varnfield gives a stellar performance as Myra Hindley. No-one will ever know what truly went through her mind – why on earth would a woman abused by her partner collude with murder? – but this play gives a chillingly convincing depiction of what she might have been thinking. A teenager in total awe of a man she loves, and a man who realises she will do anything she say, her collusion in the first murder is a commanding scene – picking up Marie Ruck, a neighbour of her mother, a young Myra suppresses her nerves just enough to lure her to her death. The moment where Myra turns up the radio to drown out the screams was the most awful moment to watch. Then her relationship to a murderer gives her a strange sort of purpose, achievement even, and she grows more confident over the next four murders, being a full-blown accomplice.
Should so much of the play have been given to Hindley’s pleas for release? That’s the controversial bit. My view is yes – it’s the only way the play can work. She’s playing Myra Hindley, so inevitably the claims she was under Ian Brady’s spell and now she’s a reformed woman are going to be told through Myra’s voice, however distorted this is from the truth. I do have some sympathy with the argument that we spend too much time talking about murderers and not enough time talking about the victims, but that’s a much wider debate than one play. What I think might have been wise, however, was to put more things on the information sheet given out at the start of the play. The sheet didn’t beat about the bush on what Brady and Hindley’s crimes were, but I’d have also used this as an opportunity for balance. Whatever the aged Hindley proclaimed to the world, I think a lot of the controversy could have been averted had the information sheet included some of the counter-arguments from those who didn’t believe she really reformed.
That controversy wasn’t really an issue for me – as far as I’m concerned, depiction is not endorsement. The one thing that I felt was missing was something quite, quite, different, and that was the final murder – the one that got them caught. When I was researching this subject prior to the review, I learnt how badly Brady overplayed his hand, thinking he could recruit Myra’s brother-in-law as a new accomplice. I realise this would have added extra complications into an hour-long piece, but it seems like such a missed opportunity. What was like for Brady and Hindley as it became clear the game was up. Brady had been brutal to Hindley over matters as trivial as looking at another man – how would he have handled this. For a story so dependent on their relationship, I’d have loved to see what true colours Ian Brady showed in the dying days, even if Lauren Varnfield had to use her imagination to fill in the gaps. But it’s a play I will recommend, but you must know what you are letting yourself in for. If you don’t like plays or films that give a murderer more of a voice then the victims, this won’t change your mind. If, however, you want to get an insight into why they are like this, then go.
After Notflix showed me how good an improvised musical can be, I was curious to see how they compared to other groups. Showstopper is one of the most prominent groups out there (doing both an adults’ and children’s show each day), and partly grabbed my interest because they have Susan Harrison, one half of the hilarious Two Star Reviewers podcast. The premise for this one is is that Cameron Mackintosh need a new musical in the West End, and he needs it in 70 minutes – coincidentally the time it takes for them to perform the show – so it’s up to us to suggest something new. (Of course, with myself the cynic I am, I think it’s a ridiculous premise, writing a musical in that length of time. If the state of most West End jukebox musicals are anything to go by, surely they are being knocked off in ten minutes. But anyway …)
On this occasion – not that will ever be repeated – the suggestion voted for by the audience is the setting of a werewolf conference. A peace between werewolves and humans has held for some time thanks to a pact to only disembowel sheep (and definitely not humans), but is a brought under threat by an upstart werewolf who’s a movie star. And he’s gone too far. To my delight, my suggestion of a scene in the underground catacombs was picked – come on, you can’t not have an underground catacomb in a werewolf movie – and this instantly brought to light by green light an ominous music. Can this upstart movie star resist the urge to bite a virgin? What if the virgin is already a werewolf? Could that make her into a – double wolf? And so on.
But how does it rate against Notflix? Close call – this is a fixture that may have to go into extra time. What’s interesting, though, is in spite of the different formats (Showstopper takes various bits on input throughout the hours, whilst Notflix starts with a name of a movie to cheesify and off they go) the strategy that makes them work is remarkably similar – you need an ensemble who are musical, confident working with each other, and had lots of practice together, and you also need the courage to make plot-changing decisions on stage, on the fly. But I’ve also picked up one small but important detail: when someone inevitably makes a mistake, they make the mistake funny, so when one of the actors forgets whether he’s a werewolf and instead says vampire, this takes on a plot thread all of its own with this new species of “werewolf-vampire”, and nicely paved the way for the double wolf bombshell. Even in a moment where one member of cast came on stage to play a bullet, only to be told we wasn’t needed, that was funny.
Showstopper has a rotating cast, but it just so happened that Susan Harrison was part of it, and she was an absolute superstar as lovestruck virgin / double wolf. The heavyweight title between them and Notflix will have to be decided another day, but one plus in Showstopper’s favour is that they tour a lot. So if you can’t catch them this fringe, there will be plenty of opportunities closer to where you live. And since I’d love to see how the kids’ show compares, I may need to borrow my nephew and niece the next time they come my way.
Bad Girls Upset by the Truth
This is truly one of the strangest plays I’ve reviewed. This is performed by Lauren Meckel, but the original performance was from the writer, Jo Carol Pierce, as a record that’s part song and part spoken word. Born and raised in a heavily religious part of Texas, Jo Carol asks Jesus what are these boys for and what she’s supposed to do with them. The answer, Jesus apparently told her, was to enjoy as many as you can – 115 is a figure quoted at one point. It’s not clear how Jo got one message and everyone else got the usual Christian message – you know, the one about impure thoughts being sinful and sex outside marriage is the devil’s work – but anyhow, the rest of the Texas goes along with the more traditional ideas and she’s seen as an outcast. That doesn’t seem to bother her too much. What does bother her is that love and nymphomania doesn’t play together nicely, and one the few occasions she meets a boy that she sees as more than a fling, the inevitable infidelity dooms any chance of a happy future.
That’s not the strangest bit though. At the beginning, Pierce talks about how she committed suicide that morning, with a quite detailed description of how many vehicles hit her on the road. As the real writer is still alive, I take it this was a metaphor for something. There’s also a bit where every goes after a passing UFO, but not in the sense of an earth-shattering moment that will change to world forever, but a casual pursuit because apparently UFOs are ten-a-penny over Texas skies. I’d love to know what any of this was supposed to mean, but this is one of the few times I can question a performer and the performer could quite legitimately respond with “Your guess is as good as mine”.
Lauren Meckel puts on a fine stage performance as Jo Carol though, with mannerisms and outfit very well of the Texas Bad Girl, but only bad in the sense of what other people consider bad even though Jesus specifically told her it was okay. The original album is online and the style does justice to the voice of the real Jo Carol. The one thing that I wasn’t so sure about was transplanting the songs from Carol to Meckel. The real Jo Carol has a low and husky voice, and I wasn’t sure this quite suited Lauren’s own voice. So I did wonder, risky though this would be, whether it would have been better to forget about trying to recreate Jo Carol’s singing and instead sing in different style or key The most memorable part of Bad Girls Upset by the Truth is the monologue. Considering the original performance was only an audio track, a good job here converting this to a visual one. Very odd play, but job well done bringing this to the stage.
And the very last review isn’t quite as bizarre, but still one of the stranger stories. And it’s the strangeness of this that makes is different from the others. Stanley lives alone in his flat, most of the time in his pyjamas, scared of the world around him and terrified by what he hears on the news. And say what you like about today’s horrendous news, but modern deluded sociopaths have lost the art of nearly blowing up the entire world. Not compared to the 1950s to 1970s when almost obliterating the planet was much more in fashion. And for Stanley, it’s one long period anxiety-driven seclusion over two decades. He has to go to great lengths to be secluded – it took an awful lot of not answers letter and phone calls for his sister to stop trying. To start with, he almost manages to attend a party thrown by a neighbour. By the end, even the unavoidable conversations at the corner shop are kept to a minimum. His only solace, it seems, is the uncomplicated life in this is new BBC radio series, The Archers.
There is one weakness to this kind of story, which is that the story is largely the same. The first scene very much establishes Stanley as a recluse terrified of the news, with no prospect of ever changing – after that, it’s really more of the same, only worse as his anxiety and agoraphobia grow unchecked. To be fair, this weakness is very much an unavoidable one, because it’s difficult to see where else this story could have gone. But perhaps this bleak unchanging narrative is the only way this story could be told. By the end, even his old friend The Archers can’t provide solace any more, where his dark thoughts take over his beloved Ambridge and turn it into a nuclear weapons test site.
I will declare that this was a tough watch for me personally – I something have periods of news-related anxiety myself, nothing on Stanley’s scale, but then, Stanley got how he was because his fears took over. Don’t expect anything cheery from this, or any more positive than a warning of what needs nipping in the bud, but do expect something very different from Conor Clarke McGrath, who shows a lot of promise from a fringe debut.
From earlier …
And joining these honourable mentions are four plays performing at the Edinburgh fringe that I saw earlier in the year.
- I saw Ladybones at the Vault Festival and this got my attention for being something different. Nuala tells her story about living with OCD, but it does a lot to challenge preconceptions – in particular, the one about about it all being arranging pens neatly. In reality – for Nuala at least – it’s a much scarier world, where trivial to you and me will terrify her. But neither is it a story which write off people with a disability for the scrapheap. It covers a lot of other material too, but it stuck with me the most for switching between clarity and confusion. No play can be expected to make the audience fully understand what it’s like to have OCD or any other condition, but this does about as good a job as you can to give the idea.
- Taboo at Brighton Fringe also stuck out as something different, but this time it invites you to understand someone with a lot less sympathy: Käthe Petersen, one of the most respected women in a position of responsibility in the 1940s – unfortunately, this was in Nazi Germany. On one level, this play works by showing how good intentions could go so wrong. But this thing this does that few others do is demonstrate how an ideology as abhorrent as National Socialism could once have been mistaken for something benign.
- At Buxton Fringe, An Audience with Yasmine Day made a return after a pilot showing last year. Originally a disastrous performance from a washed up 80s tribute signer, it’s come a long way in a year and is now a much darker tale. Yasmine is still touring the pub circuit, but she’s not a fallen idol, having once been so close to stardom – and, worse, her determination to settle old scores and her ability to see who’s really using her prevents any chance of a comeback. Still a lot of fun to watch, but now a lot more to this story.
- And also at Buxton The Grandmothers Grimm, a tale of how the Grimms tales came to be. Some very interesting material covered here. One the one hand, there’s how the tales were changed to suit the ideology of the brothers Grimm, including – most controversially – their ideals of womanhood. On the other hand, there’s what was in the originally tales, and, holy fucking shit. You think you’ve heard everything about whether it’s right to kiss a sleeping princess? Just wait until you read the original story, and don’t get more started on the early version of Red Riding Hood. One of the most interesting plays I’ve seen on the fringe.
On this occasion, the gap between this and honourable mention was very close. It is true to say that in some years, this category has a lot of plays where I went “meh”, but this time I genuinely liked what all of these plays had to offer, and had I set the bar slightly lower, most of these would have gone into honourable mention too.
This is a student production from Oxford-based Mercury Theatre. Student theatre often carries a certain degree of apprehension – although some student groups produce gems, there’s also a lot of unmemorable productions loosely known as “studenty” productions, being productions making the mistakes commonly made by student groups. So having seen this, I’m pleased to say the Numbers, whilst not perfect, is a good start for this group.
The key strength of this play are two well-written monologues. Jack sits in a therapy session giving a list of what he’s good at. That, in isolation, means nothing. It is only as he digresses and expands on what he meant that things fall into place. We hear a lot about his like, his hopes, his insecurities, but now he has some demons he must face. He is drinking heavily. He punched a mirror the other day in a moment he felt like punching himself. Meanwhile, another man in the group lets his own story slip. His parents were dedicated to him, working every hour God sends so he could go to summer camp, staying up until the early hours talking to him, then two things are dropped that aren’t right. On his eighteenth birthday they hire him a prostitute. Shortly after, they cut him out of their lives. If you haven’t already figured out why they’d do that, the penny will shortly drop when you discover they are devout Christians. Now he only had two sort-of friends: he cat, and the guy at the off-license. Where he spends a lot of time.
What is less clear about the play is exactly what the mental health problems are. This play was developed in collaboration with the charity SANE, so I’ll take their word that what they’re depicting is accurate – but I wasn’t sure what they were depicting. The room problem, I suspect, is that writing characters with mental health problems is hard. If there’s one golden rule in theatre, it’s that everything the characters do must be plausible. People with mental health problems may do something irrational to someone in a fit state of mind, but nonetheless this needs to be explained. Not easy. A quick off-the-cuff explanation is unlikely to cut it – some plays, indeed, decidate the entire script to explaining why. In addition, I couldn’t work out how Jack’s girlfriend Brianna was reacting to this. Had she worked out something was wrong, or was she mistaking Jack’s issue for not being interested in her any more? I suspect – and this is a difficult thing to avoid in writing – the writer and company had a clear idea of what was going on and why, but it wasn’t obvious enough for a newcomer to pick up.
But that can be fixed – what is important here is that where the play was at its strongest, it was excellent. An easy trap during exposition is characters making implausible digressions to cover plot points, or worse, the “information dump” where the plot development pauses which the entire backstory is spelled out in bullet point form. This was a one-week run that has now finished, but having got this far, it would be a shame to stop now. Rationalising the irrational is never an easy thing to write, but sort this and combine it with the writing used for the monologues and there’s going to be a strong formula.
Life Between Yes and No
Anna is a call handler at the DWP taking calls from prospective disability claimants. This subject, of course, has been a thorny one for the last nine years. But this play isn’t about the rights and wrongs of the law – it’s about Anna who’s having to put up with being the middle man, or rather middle woman. In theory, her job is nothing more than entering data for benefit claims; in practice, however, it’s hard to stay out of it. When people wait ages to get through to a human, she’s the one who gets shouted at. When people call, she has to hear the desperate circumstances in which they’re even though there’s nothing they can do. One oddity is the standard question about whether your doctor has said your claim will have “special circumstances”, which means less than six months to live. Presumably someone in the DWP thought this was a way of tiptoeing around a delicate subject – in reality, of course, Anna has to explain this every time. Worse, when someone actually is such a case, all that caller really wants to do is talk about family. All this might be fine if Anna was a jobsworth, but she cares about them, and the strain on her as she goes through the calls works very well.
What works less well is the physical theatre element of this play. For Anna her life between call centre stints (or “Yes or no”) is her time with her housemate and best friend Lily. When Lily excitedly announces she’s quite her job, in the wildly optimistic belief she’ll definitely earn money as a writer instead, that’s a promising plot twist as it makes Anna sole rent-payer and locked into a job she hates. But the next bit of the plot thread I can pick up – Lily’s dead and Anna is speaking at her funeral. Something vital, I fear, has been lost in the physical theatre sequences before then.
Other experimental elements work better – the replies to Anna’s phone calls as musical instruments works surprisingly well, even managing to indicate the emotions of the callers. One thing I do have to mention is they’re in Bar Bados, with its usual noise bleed from paper-thin walls. For theatre, Bar Bados should only really be considered if you’re trying something out and are prepared to ignore all the problems with putting on plays there. But in the process of trying this out, I hope Kalho Theatre does pick up what works best. The portrayal of helplessness passing messages between desperate people at one end as decision-makers at the other is very strong, and that is where there’s a much more of a story to make.
Very much in the style of its predecessors, Faulty Towers and The Wedding Reception (now Confetti and Chaos). Pamela’s Palace has a plot that doesn’t exactly tax the brain. Diva-extraordinaire runs a beauty salon with two staff. Tiffany, always made up to the nines, and dowdy Bronwyn, who sweeps the floor and desperately wants to be given a chance to cut hair. But we’ve come in at a tense time at the salon as Pamela is up against a hated cheating rival salon for an award and a mystery judge. Will Tiffany’s new boyfriend who works at aforementioned rival salon turn out to be no good? Will Bronwyn get the chance to cut hair and in doing so unexpectedly prove her worth to both herself and others? Those are rhetorical questions, in case you haven’t worked that out.
This is Interactive Theatre International, so this is is if course interactive. Every time the door buzzer goes, that is the cue for a braver audience member to move seats, which in turn is the cue for Pamela, Tiffany or Bronwyn to welcome aforementioned audience member as a new customer. It’s probably fair to say that this play stands or falls on how enthusiastic the audience is for taking part. Had they got an audience where everyone looked at the floor, the performance would probably fall flat. On the Friday night I went, though, the audience were great sports, with extra laughs added from the random man playing Bronwyn’s sheep farming father on the phone who told her he could speak to her favourite sheep right away as she was in in bed with him.
However, I did miss the interactive dining that made The Wedding Reception such a fun event. That format obviously wouldn’t work here, and in leiu of this Pamela’s Palace fills in the gaps with a lot of groaners (such as the hasty rebranding to one-up their Ancient Greece-theme rivals as “Scissor’s Palace”), musical performances and general silliness. Which, to be fair, is all the audience were expecting here. But without the dining bit to vary things a bit, I eventually found the silliness a little repetitive. Personally, I would have made the characters more than caricatures – that suited the eight characters in The Wedding Reception fine but with only three there was room to make more of this. One missed opportunity, I thought, was satirising the beauty industry. This is touched upon when Bronwyn shows a bit of armpit hair and Pamela and Tiffany tell her how important it is to shave them, before going on to list an increasingly expensive and painful set of make-up procedures / surgical enhancements – but this is never mentioned again until the end of the play when Pamela suddenly says there’s more to life than that. I could imagine Tiffany ruthlessly peddling these treatments on unsuspecting customers by eroding their self-esteem.
At the end of the day, however, Pamela’s Palace should be judged for what it is, which is fun. It is fun, and the slickness that I’ve seen Interactive Theatre International so before carries over to this well. If you only have time to do one Interactive International Theatre event, I’d pick one of their dining experiences, which is where they’re at their strongest, but if you don’t have time/money for that or you want some late-night fun long after the suitable time for three-courser, this isn’t a bad alternative. Just don’t turn up after an expensive hairdo.
Lucille and Cecelia
If The Red Hourglass themed play around all characters being spiders, this time, the two characters are sea lions. And just in case you missed the bit in the programme saying they’re sea lions, as you take your seat you will see these two seals (embodied by two women in black leotards and moustaches) wriggling about, balancing on balls and excitedly performing sea lion-like stunts for the audience. I loved that performance and this opening is one of the best openings I’ve seen of an Edinburgh Fringe play.
But then what do you do? No matter how good your weird and wonderful idea is, you have to sustain interest for a full hour. Many years ago I saw a similarly-styled play Howard and Mimi, where the characters were a dog and a cat, with a story structured around moving in together, fighting like cat and dog, then learning to like each other before some unexpected events drive them closer. The Red Hourglass structured the show around one character at a time. Here … I can’t work out where the story was meant to go. The ringmaster announcing the acts sounded a bit shifty, but that plot-line never develops. The sea lions start off barking, then learn human words, and then they’re suddenly speaking to each other in English, but it’s not clear what that was meant to signify. One of the sea lions has a crush on her human trainer and flirts with other random humans, and the other one wants to escape, but I couldn’t establish either sea lion’s motives.
I still think this is worth seeing for the sea lion performances, but for this to fulfil its potential, we need something more. I might sound like a screaming pedant when I ask what the rules are of this setting, but even the most surrealistic setting work best when you establish what the rules are and play out believable characters in these absurd scenarios. At the moment, I feel this has gone for a scattergun approach to writing a plot. I would pick out the strongest plot element, concentrate on that, and write a story around that. There are few plays that give you a chance to identify with sea lions – this is an opportunity not to be wasted.
Father of Lies
This is an in-house production from Sweet Venues, for a pair who normally do comedy and magic. I only found that out after the play – if I hadn’t I’d have just assumed they were straight theatre actors. This is a true story of one of the strangest murders on record. In West Germany in 1973, an widower and ex-priest murdered his best friend, and also – so he confessed – his late wife’s child, whom he apparently believe was fathered by his best friend. But the baby was never found, either dead or alive. There are other strange events: the baby was born prematurely as his mother died in childbirth, surviving against all odds; the mother was a runaway from her religious Israeli family and possibly spent time in a cult; and the two men both have their own memories of the war from the losing side.
It’s a fascinating true story to bring to the stage, but the one decision I don’t understand was to tell most of the story in the format of a presentation, with only a few key scenes between the two men acted out. Sometimes this format is necessary if you have to convey a lot of complicated or technical information (Hitting the Wall, a play about swimming from Scotland to Ireland is a good example), but here a lot of information were the characters’ backstories, where it’s quite normal to work these into dialogue. And the other puzzle as to why there was so little in the way of acting: the few short scenes they did were done very well, keeping the tension up and suiting the simple stage and the small space available. What’s more, when they did allude to their past events, it was very powerful, such as the friend recalling the fate of his mother and sister at the hands of the invading Soviet Army. Whilst I doubt you could have dispensed with the narration completely, there is a lot that I think would have been more powerful had it been talked about by the two characters than just spoken in front of a slide projector.
But this is an intriguing play/talk to watch, even if the format is a bit unusual, and the fact that this is has been done by an act normally associated with different genres is of great credit to them.
I chose to see a performance of East because I wanted to see how the script translates to the stage. To be honest, I’ve read the script before and I didn’t get it. But there again, I didn’t get Caryl Churchill’s A Number when I read the script, and it was only when it was performed I understood how it was meant to work. I had a similar observations with Five Kinds of Silence: I’ve seen two different productions of the same play, and I discovered the second time round how much of a difference some good movement directing puts into a play for voices. You can achieve far much more than five people on stage doing monologues in turn – you can choreograph in the whole ensemble.
The same principle works here, and HiveMCR does the best possible job of this. East refers to the East End of London, and the five character are hard-as-nails cockneys: Dad, Mum, their two sons, and the woman they’re both trying to shag when they’re not busy fighting other men or shagging other women. The whole play is done in verse, so it is, if you like, Shakespeare for Cockneys. Instead of a dry set of scene changes where one actor at a time does a piece, the whole ensemble takes part all the time, whether at a tense family dinner, an all-out street brawl or all gather together to be a motorbike. All of the actors fit their characters very well – in a play like this the last thing you want is someone who’d look like he’d follow up a punch or stabbing with “Oh, I’m sorry, are you all right?” In that respect, well done for HiveMCR for giving this play the best it could be given.
But, having seen this play on action live on stage, in the full spirit of how it’s meant to be done, I’m afraid I’m not warming to it. The entire play strikes me as nothing more than a list of negative traits about the working class of East End of London in the 1960s. Les and Mike are thugs with little more in their lives than fighting and shagging. Slyv might be hard as nails but main role in the play appear to be getting shagged by everyone. Dad is a racist who idolises Oswald Moseley. Mum is a slightly more sympathetic character than the others, but her life seems little more than letting Dad and the boys do their thing, and watching daytime TV. All of this might be fine if there was some nuance to this, but it’s either non-existent or subtle to the point of undetectable, with reasons for the way they are being little more to a few nods to boredom. The closest thing I saw to any humanity was Les’s slight of a beautiful woman on the bus. This might have struck a chord if he thought about a romantic relationship people like her have with each other – but instead it’s more like a checklist of the degrading sexual acts he’d like to perform on her.
What I find most uncomfortable about this play is how something relentlessly negative about working-class London gets so much praise. I realise Stephen Berkoff came from that background so maybe that was his own memories of what things were like, but I really don’t like the swiftness of the rest of the literary world to leap on this as if the observations of one writer validates their idea of what the proles are like. I must stress for a moment that I don’t believe for a moment that is what this company thinks about the working class, and if there is any attitude problem it’s with the literary establishment as a whole, particularly those in the 1970s when this play first became all the rage. Now, I’m prepared to consider that there might be something I’ve missed. But I cannot imagine this sort of depiction being tolerated for any other disadvantaged group. And you would not get off the hook by saying we weren’t looking deeply enough.
It is a shame that such a good performance from the ensemble is mixed with very different feelings for the script. I have no doubts that they will do other performances which will cause the scripts to shine. And for the seeming majority of literary critics who see this as a work of genius, I’m sure they’ll approve of this adaptation. But for me, this was my chance to see this on stage as it’s intended to come across – and I don’t get it. Sorry.
Borchert: a life
The first reaction one might have to this title is “Who’s Borchert?” This piece plays on that though, and at the beginning as Borchert introduces himself on stage he even say it’s forgivable if you struggling to pronounce his name. Anyway, Borchert was an German anti-war poet in his brief life. At first there was a dilemma over whether to follow is parents’ wish to be a bookseller or be an actor, but that rendered moot after his conscription into the German army. In spite of spending some of the time in the arny theatre company, he saw all the horrors of the Russian front, and afterwards wrote about his memories before sadly his war illnesses finished him off barely two years later.
If there was one thing I’d want addressed, it’s the anachronisms on set. Fringegoers learn to make allowances for limited staging and low budgets, but the first thing I noticed about the set brought on stage at the beginning were two plastic chairs. That wasn’t the the only anachronism – the soldiers’ uniforms were combat jackets and I could have sworn I’d seen some crisp packets. Now, I think Cosmic Arts was aware of this – this play is billed as Borchert writing a play about him with only forty minute to do it – and I’m prepared to accept this is all part of format. But if you’re going to do that, I’d go the whole hog and make this theme prevalent throughout the play. Maybe Borchert ask what the hell plastic chairs are doing in a scene from the 1930s, whilst the other actors apologise and say it was all they could fit in the van.
There are some touching moments in this play. The part where Borchert’s mother hides the love poem his son wrote to another man from the inspecting Nazis was done well, as was the turning point where his career in the arts was cut short by his conscription. There is also some humour where, following various trials where Borchert get acquitted from things he was guilty of, he expresses exasperation about how rubbish Nazi Germany is about being a totalitarian state. Ultimately, this is a play that will benefit most from trial and error. A 40-minute biopic is not an easy thing to write, and the plot device of the character is question writing his own play is tricky to get right. But I like that plot device, and the best thing Cosmic Arts could do is get more confident with this and strengthen this theme. But it has told me about a bit of history I never know about. A good start and, whether persisting with this or moving to a new project, a good thing to build on.
Are You Alice: a new Wonderland tale
This is in the Dance and Physical Theatre section of the programme rather than straight theatre, and for reasons I’ll go into shortly, this was the right place to put it. It’s a very abstract setting, but the premise seems to be that seven different Alices all go to sleep and share the same dream. What follows over the next hour is a potted retelling of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, with guest appearances from Alice Through the Looking Glass, including the exam to be Queen, the Jabberwocky and Tweedledum and Tweedledee. (Did you know that Tweedledum, Tweedledee and their Walrus and Carpenter story were originally through the looking glass before Walt Disney moved them to Wonderland? If not, you do now.)
To be honest, I couldn’t make much sense of the premise, other than being a re-enactment of the Alice scenes with the seven Alices taking turns as proper Alice. It didn’t matter too much to me though – the one thing that Lewis Carroll’s books are not supposed to do is make sense. I was more interested in the staging and choreography of this, which was good. I really liked the music written for this, and some of the scenes were impressive, with the Cheshire Cat being represented by just a mouth being a particularly inspired idea, and the seven-Alice Jabberwocky also being quite striking. There are some signs that the play has been planned round the individual actors’ strengths, with the strongest singers getting the most singing and the strongest dancers getting the most dancing – I approve, that’s one of the best ways to make an ensemble shine with what you have.
And yet, I feel I’ve missed something here. According the the press release the play “questions identity, womanhood and self-acceptance in world which constantly redraws the lines and rewrites the rules”. I’ll accept that Wonderland does indeed constantly redraw the lines and rewrites the rules, but I couldn’t work out what this had to do with questioning identity, womanhood and self-acceptance. However, this goes back to what I said about its category in the programme. Dance and Physical Theatre has its own set of conventions, just like theatre has a set of conventions that might not be obvious to someone used to films and television. If people who know this genre better get what this is about, fair enough.
Ultimately, this comes down to what Permafrost Collective want to achieve. If this is aimed at a Dance & Physical Theatre audience and you’re confident they’ll understand the conventions, you can safely ignore what I’m saying. If it’s trying to get a message out to a wider audience, you’ve got to think about whether someone who’s never seen this before will pick up the some things as someone who knows the production inside out – that’s never easy. But I’m just happy to appreciate Are You Alice for what I saw: an absurdist adaption of an absurdist book with some excellent music and choreography. If that’s good enough for Permafrost, it’s good enough for me too.
Not quite theatre
Finally, I have one entry that I didn’t count as theatre and therefore was not eligible for Pick of the Fringe. But it was nonetheless a nice thing to see.
From Judy to Bette
Rebecca Perry made a name for herself with her Redheaded Coffeeshop Girl plays. This piece is very different, and arguably not really a play. I’d describe this more as a musical celebration of four iconic women from the golden age of Hollywood, featuring many of their greatest songs sung live on stage. The songs was one of the strongest parts of Perry’s last two plays, so her performance here, as expected, is excellent.
With only 15 minutes per Hollywood icon, you’ve got to be choosy over what you cover and what to leave out. Such are the struggles of the road to stardom – and, let’s face it, the treatment of aspiring Judys, Lucilles, Bettys and Bettes today isn’t exactly covered in glory today, never mind the 1930s – I’m sure you could have enough material for four shows. But the focus here isn’t how they got famous, but what they achieved once they did. And not just their greatest hits on stage or screen, but what else they did for the world, such as Judy Garland not giving a damn how people live their lives accidentally making her the original gay icon, and Lucille Ball making herself a household with I Love Lucy showing that female comedians are a thing.
The fringe version is the 60-minute version. There’s a 90-minute version too – if you do have the option to see this later, I would pick the 90-minute version because I’m sure the stuff that couldn’t make it into 60 minutes would be just as good. Overall, this is a nice, and uplifting show, and if you want a musical hour free from cynicism and instead celebrating the good things, this is for you.
And finally, we round up with the inevitable tirade against whoever behaved in the most dickish manner this year. And yet again, it’s the arts section of The Scotsman. Perhaps I might be partially responsible for the escalation, because I opened my fringe coverage with an article on why you should not be reviewed by the Scotsman; but the final straw that led me to write this was Kate Copstick’s bizarre attack on four comedians the year before for the temerity of saying no to press tickets in preview week. This year, she doubled-down on this long after everyone else had ceased to flog this dead horse. It would have been fine if she’s attempted to address any of the criticisms, but she just repeated the same arguments. Also, apparently exercising your right to decline review requests is “dick-waving”, whatever that means.
But by far the most contemptible behaviour came from their sister paper the Edinburgh Evening News, with one of the Scotsman’s reviewers decrying pretty much all the alternatives as “pop-up reviewers”. (Technically this is an an individual writing in a personal capacity, but it was so partisan is reads as a Scotsman-sanctioned hit piece with Liam Rudden acting as proxy.) It probably wasn’t written in response to my piece, however much I wish it was, but I still nonetheless responded. Worse, his arguments were a mixture of superiority complex (Scotsman reviewers are better because the Scotsman says so), poor practice (prioritising entertainment over anything useful) – and worst, promoting the hit-piece review, a practice that everybody else has long since viewed as unacceptable.
One thing I ought to say in their defence is that paid reviewers have been struggling for years now – indeed, the only reason The Scotsman continued this year was with financial support from The Big Four. But blaming your predicament on people doing the job for free is poor form, especially when many people think they do the job better. That, and the fact that the people at The Scotsman have not once considered what they might be doing, means they have squandered the sympathy I might otherwise have had.
There was a time when The Scotsman’s reviews was an indispensable part of the Edinburgh Fringe. Not any more. So far their reviews have survived through good will. If The Scotsman is determined to destroy that too, go ahead.