REVIEWS: Skip to: Richard Carpenter is Close to You, La Vie Dans Une Marionette, The Friday Night Effect, Victim, Love+, Cockroached, Lists for the End of the World, Replay, Was it Good for You?, The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show, Izzy’s Manifestoes, Penthouse, Just Don’t Do It, You, Me and Everything Else, Boris and Sergey, Goblin Market, One-Man Apocalypse Now, Mimi’s Suitcase, No Miracles Here, The City, BlackCatfishMusketeer
Tuesday 22nd August, 9.45 p.m.: Okay, back to reviews. Next up is Richard Carpenter’s Close To You, which I’d heard quite a lot of good things about in Buxton so wanted to see for myself. First thing to get out of the way is that this is not a tribute act as such. For one thing, Richard Carpenter reminds us at the start that you can get round copyright law by exaggerating a character, changing lyrics to songs and making a few tiny changes to the tune that you probably won’t notice anyway, then you can call it parody. Ever heard of the classic song Stormy Days and Thursdays? You have now.
But after an opening 10 minutes when Matthew Floyd Jones plays just about every known instrument (very well, as it happens, including his Yamalka piano), we get into the story, as Richard Carpenter goes from one degrading store opening to another, all using the memory of Karen in increasingly inappropriate ways, such as putting a fake handprint of Karen into the concrete of a new cinema. Meanwhile, Richard gets on the phone to his agent who’s not interested in him any more. Hope rise when a journalist going by the name of Sayton (not to be confused with the other guy whose name is pronounced the same but spelt differently) interviews him for an article he’s writing. Will this turn his fortunes around?
There is one avoidable issue with this play, and that’s the confused timeline. I found myself spending a lot of the play trying to work out whether Matthew is meant to be playing Richard Carpenter himself or just some washed-up tribute act pretending to be him. (It’s the former.) The changed lyrics, funny though they were, confused matters quite a bit – why would Richard Carpenter not be able to sing his own songs – but I accept that was unavoidable. But I think it was needless to throw in so many references to the modern day when the real Richard Carpenter is now 70. Pinning the setting to the 1980s after Karen’s death, I feel, would have avoided this confusion.
But apart from that, this play has a lot to go for it. As well as the musical talent on offer, the play is very funny with many serious message conveyed in the satire. The real Richard Carpenter was often thoughtlessly described as “the piano player from The Carpenters”. That features heavily in the story, as well has hypocritical beatification of deceased celebrities, the obsession society has with stars whilst ignoring the talents of the many who got them where they were, the depths the gutter press sinks to, and the hypocrisy of the people who try to make entertainment out of gutter press victims. So no, Richard Carpenter is Close to You is the last thing you’d call a tribute act – but it’s arguably a better tribute to Richard Carpenter than any tribute act could manage.
Tuesday 22nd August, 7.00 p.m.: Now a change from reviewing and a brief controversy break. One of the things that has been getting attention from the fringe media are these Bechdel Test stickers. There’s coverage on FringeReview, along with a collection of other stories, but prior to the fringe it was being suggested you might see these stickers all over the place. As I understand it, it was a group Bechdel Theatre issuing these stickers rather than the performers of Bechdel-passing plays – I’m not sure whether they asked the performers concerned if they wanted this label. If they did, and the performers agreed, then I have no objections – performers have the right to promote themselves any way they like. However – and I say this is someone who supports what the Bechdel test is meant to achieve – I think it’s a bad idea. Here’s why.
For films, the Bechdel Test is generally quite good, provided you use some common sense. You can read my thoughts here on its strengths and weaknesses, but it does hit the nail on the head of what the problems is: that in films, Hollywood films in particular, there’s a tendency women to only get roles of someone’s mother, sister, daughter or – most commonly – love interest. There is some evidence that it’s an issue in theatre too. I’ve always found my local theatres to be quite even-handed with male and female characters, but I get the impression that it’s a different matter in commercial theatre in London (as the Arts Council can’t make diversity a condition of funding if you’re giving no funding anyway), and I can see the Bechdel Test making reasonable sense there too. However, fringe theatre is a different matter completely. I can see two big problems with this.
Firstly, this excludes lots of plays with good female roles. It is unusual, but not unheard of, for films with great female leads to fail the Bechdel test, but in fringe theatre, where casts are usually small and there’s fewer chances for any kind of female-female conversation, suddenly lots of plays Alison Bechdel would approve of fail, including over half the plays I’ve reviewed here with strong female leads. Daftest of all is that this blanket excludes all female solo plays. To be fair, Bechdel Theatre have attempted to mitigate this with “Bechdel-friendly solo shows”, but that still excludes masses of fantastic female solo shows out there. A minor limitation in film becomes a massive problem at the fringe.
The other issue is more serious, in that this focus on Edinburgh addresses a problem that isn’t there. I’ll happily change my mind if someone’s done some more comprehensive research, but I can tell you from the analysis of my own reviews – where I make no attempt to balance any demographics of artists and simply go for whatever takes my fancy – that male-led and female-led plays is a pretty even split. That shouldn’t come as any surprise, because actors generally have far more power over which parts they play than fully professional theatres who control the purse-strings. So if there’s nothing unusual about female-led plays at the Edinburgh Fringe, and given that the Bechdel Test makes no comment on the the quality of the play, it seems – someone please correct me if I’m missing something here – that the Bechdel Test reduces to a participation prize. Now, I can’t speak for any women here, but if it was me, I would find this condescending: the idea that, never mind if the play’s any good, the fact that I’m a woman taking part is an achievement in its own right.
What is most frustrating about this is that there are better ways of analysing the issue of female representation in theatre, developed by women, that have been forgotten. Sphinx Theatre came up with the Sphinx Test the same time Bechdel theatre got started. Okay, the Sphinx Test has the disadvantage that it’s subjective and open to far more interpretation that Bechdel, but it does actually get to grips with the issue of whether the female characters are good ones, not simply whether two of them talk to each other on something about men. But with Bechdel seeming to be treated with such reverence, nothing else seems to be getting a look-in.
But, hey, whatever. It’s really not my business to tell other performers how to promote their shows. What I can say, however, is that if someone did an equivalent test for actors on the autistic spectrum – and there definitely is under-representation if you include the entire spectrum – that is the last thing I’d want on my posters. I want consider myself judged on equal terms with my peers, and that’s not going to happen with stickers coming across as “Fuck, it’s amazing, the disableds can put on plays! Like, in proper theatre!” In fact, you can hold me to this. If someone promotes me as “autism representation”, I don’t want it. If I’m offered a slot in someone’s programme because of my condition, count me out. If I take up an offer and find out later it was only because someone wants to make their diversity stats look better, I will resign. That’s just me though. Rest of you can please yourselves.
Okay, rant over. Let’s get back to reviews.
Monday 21st August: Phew. 32 plays in 8 days and that’s my lot done. But don’t go away, because I’ve still got more reviews to catch up on, such as La Vie Dans Une Marionette.
This is a charming little piece from the family section of the programme. As we enter, we are greeted by a woman who says we are all beautiful in an accent that is supposed to be French. Well, more like an absurdly fictitious French accent, but that’s okay, because the fact they’re really from New Zealand is a running joke throughout. In fact, the entire thing parodies the classic black and white movies of France – the only thing that was missing was “Fin” at the end. After she give her run-through of ‘ow to be a good audience or bad audience, we go into the story, where our silent hero gets a delivery of a life-size marionette. From what we can tell he’s a lonely man, left by his one true love when younger, and this puppet is his only friend to him.
I’ll get the problem out of the way: it’s tough to get what’s going on here. This wouldn’t normally be such an issue, but this show is aimed at children 7 or above, and I can see little chance of kids that young to follow this. Okay, silent plays aren’t the easiest things to explain, but in this play we establish that the man and his marionette are silent but the moon that comes up every night can talk. I would have given the moon a much stronger role as a narrator – she says “You are all beautiful” quite a lot, but it was a missed opportunity to make the play easier to understand.
However, it is a strange delight to explain to punters that this play the man and the puppet can’t speak but the moon can. The puppetry effect of pulling hidden strings was done very well, and the music used for the dance sequences was gorgeous. This is more experimental that I’d normally recommend for a family show, but given time I think we can see a lovely and accessible family-friendly show come from this. In the meantime, you can enjoy this for what it is.
Sunday 20th August, 10.15 p.m.: One more review before I call it a night, and that’s Victim from Bruised Sky productions. This play is a sort-of follow-on from a previous play Villain, about public vilification, but don’t worry if you haven’t seen that play, because this one is a good stand-alone play in its own right.
Louise Bereford plays Tracy, a prison officer wanting to do the right thing, but pressure at home from a sick father and useless husband are taking their toll. Louise Bereford also plays Siobhan, a long-time inmate happy to be on the inside after doing away with an abusive partner, now building a status for herself on the inside as the prison fixer, especially with smuggled mobile phones where she always stay one step ahead. But Siobahn isn’t the most notorious inmate – that is a new prisoner who stood by and allowed her baby to be ritualistically murdered by her partner.
Bereford does a slick job switching between down-to-earth Tracy and confident but intimidating Tracy. It does take a couple of scenes to establish she’s switching between the two, and there maybe an avoidable bit of confusion at the beginning (when Siobahn talks about a treat her late parter was planning for his new woman, followed immediately by Tracy talking about a treat from her husband), but that was only a small issue. Most of the time, it’s a well-written script from Martin Murphy of power games that Siobahn masters. But there are no unambiguously good or evil characters here: Tracy has integrity but also her weakness; Siobahn is ruthless but sometimes understands the personal demons of other inmates, even if she’s working a plan to her advantage.
It’s hard to know how this compares to Villain without having seen it – I gather that play did very well – but Victim is a good play that give a lot of insight into the murky world of prison fixing, explaining how even decent people can get sucked into these schemes. Whether or not you know the original, this is well worth a visit.
Sunday 20th August, 6.15 p.m.: Grr. Was supposed to do a review of another play on the train home, but Virgin Trains East Coast’s wi-fi provider has other ideas.
So in the short amount of time I have, I don’t have time to write a full review, but that’s okay, because I’m going to recommend The Friday Night Effect. I will say why later, but honestly, this is a play that is best seen cold, with no clues given by anyone else on what to expect.
Will try to get another review out later because I’ve still got a lot of catching up to do.
Sunday 20th August, 12 noon: Phew. That was a big day yesterday. A six-show day, including a late-night Boris and Sergey that finished at 2.30 a.m. I’m really too old to be staying out that late, but I have to do it occasionally to prove the point that I can do it if I want to.
Anyway, let’s get on with the snap reviews before the backlog gets any bigger. It’s back to Malaprop Theatre; I originally scheduled myself to review one of their plays, but after BlackCatfishMusketeer impressed me last week, they’ve earned themselves a bonus review. And so I saw LOVE+. The other play may have been a love story facilitated by technology, but the story was very much grounded in reality. This one, however, goes into a more fictitious future where a woman falls in love with a robot.
This is a cleverly-written script here, from someone who understand how computers think. The woman as a bot, who is both a housekeeper and companion. Unlike a human, bot never tires of work and also understands everything the woman wants. Not through empathy as a human would understand it, but more like the way social media does it. We never know much about the woman’s life outside this relationship, but we can guess that she finds human-human relationships too complicated. But the question this play raises is a strange paradox: is someone who has everything you ever wanted really what you want? No matter how well bot adjusts herself to the woman’s desires, there’s no getting round the fact that she’s doing that because that’s what she’s programmed to do. And bot’s biggest strength of knowing someone so well is also her biggest weakness – human being just don’t like being predicted this accurately.
There is only one thing about this play that I didn’t like, and that was the breaking of the fourth wall towards the end of the play. Breaking the fourth wall can be necessary if you need to make a point that can’t be told in the play, but this comes at the expense of disrupting the story you’re telling. In this case, I didn’t think this was necessary – the questions about whether a robot can feel love in the same way a robot can feel temperature was a good one, but this could easily have been worked into the script. They don’t need to break the fourth wall – the play is easily capable of saying everything it needs without.
Apart from that niggle, LOVE+ is a really interesting that complements their other play well to take todays love/technology mix to the next level. And I really liked the way Brefinni Holohan played Bot, with an understated but perfect mix of methodical robot movements and human-ish warmth. Summerhall’s best specialty, I’ve always thought, are plays that mix art and science, and Malaprop’s double-bill couldn’t have been a better choice. More like this please.
Saturday 19th August, 5.30 p.m.: Big moment. The second Ike Award of the fringe has been given. And it goes to pretty much the last play I’d expect to get this. I have given a fair few positive write-ups of some plays with little or nothing I found at fault, but they’ve stayed within tried and tested formats. That’s not enough for my equivalent to a five-star review. For this, there has to be little or nothing I have to fault and it needs to be something different. And the play I just saw that fits the bill is Cockroached.
At first glance, this appears to be yet another zombie apocalypse story. I’ve nothing against zombie stories as such, just that this is surely the most done to death trope ever. But that’s not what this story is about. Instead, this is a tense tale of power and mind games. Taylor arrives back at his place, a fancy dress shop where he’s holding out against “those outside”. On a CB radio, a voice comes on asking for Max, and Taylor answers. On the radio is another survivor. She won’t give her name and she’s guarded over where she is. But who is she really? And who is Taylor really?
When the entire play involves one person talking to a CB radio, you’d be hard pressed to do without making the play look static. But Theatre63 rises to the challenge, and the combination of Ruby Etches’s directing and William Proudler’s superb script means there’s never a dull moment, and Taylor and his unseen contact drifting between distrustful co-operation and psychological warfare. On top of the, Proudler also manages to provide a perfect musical score for this apocalyptic world. Plenty of plays and films of this nature say it’s not about the zombies, it’s about the survivors, but trust me, you’ve never seen anything like this story.
For the sake of completeness, I am obliged to say that the version I saw is only shown on alternate performances; in the other performances, the two swap round so that Taylor is now a woman and the radio voice is a man. As far as I can tell, the story will work about the same the other way round. Theatre63 did draw attention to this being a non gender-specific production. I am of the opinion that it is rare you can do a straight gender-swap in a play without a loss of plausibility – normally, if you want to avoid gender imbalance or gender stereotypes, you need to think about this first before your ideas stick. Cockroached is an exception because it’s set in a world where all societal norms go out the window. But don’t see this because it’s non gender-specific. See this because it’s one of the best hidden gems in this fringe.
Saturday 19th August, 9.30 p.m.: And that, it turns out, was my only gap in all of yesterday. Currently 7 reviews in the backlog. Yeek.
Let’s get another one out the way then. I finally saw Lists for the End of the World, which has been under development in the north-east for some time and I finally took the opportunity to see it. This is a very unusual one to review because it pushes the definition of theatre to the limits, and with it pushes the rules of reviewing theatre to the limits too, but I will try. So, first thing to get out of the way is that the end of the world doesn’t actually feature anywhere in the play. Instead it’s just lists. Really, one hour of lists.
But for a concept that might seem dull, it works a lot better than you might think. FanShen theatre’s preparation for this play was literally asking people to fill in lists, from the light-hearted to the more poignant. At one point, we hear an alarmingly long list of “Places I’d hide a body”; someone, it seems, has been thinking about this too much. When it gets to lists such as “Things I’m afraid of”, we get things from people opening up and telling their thoughts they wouldn’t normally reveal.
The trouble is, for all this hard work researching people’s inner thoughts, I don’t understand the purpose of doing this as a play. There’s only so many ways you can read out a list. FanShen do put variety into this with a variety of staging and theatrical devices; some of these were appropriate, such as the dark quiet setting for “Things that keep me awake at night”, but some other devices, such as singing a list to Mambo Number Five, felt forced. I am normally the first person to bemoan unimaginative productions that don’t use opportunities for sound and lights, but here even I felt this was staging effects for the sake of it.
So here’s a suggestion I’m going throw in: do this as a book. A book just of these lists if you like, but there’s opportunities to put in fitting artwork if you so wish. The thing is, the point of lists is something you can go back and check again, and you don’t get this opportunity in a play. Once you hear something that you don’t take in, it’s gone. That’s a shame. These lists say a lot about people, and they deserve to be remembered. You can have that idea for free.
Right, where are we? Six reviews in the backlog, after three to be added by the end of today. Looks like another long day today.
Friday 18th August, 4.30 p.m.: Observant readers will notice there’s been quite a gap since my last update. This is because I’m currently in hardcore mode with five plays per day, and even this barely covers everything I need to see (both review requests and things I wanted to see anyway). I’ve got to the stage of the fringe where people say “So what are you seeing today?” and I answer “I don’t know”.
But reviews must go on, but the next one is easy because it’s Replay. Short answer: what everyone else said.
Long answer: Replay is the latest play to come under the banner of Dugout Theatre, but this time, artistically at least, it’s Dugout’s play in name only. Dugout have earned a great reputation of plays in all sorts of surrealistic settings, usually to music, from an Ocean’s Eleven-style heist in the Fens to four survivors of an apocalyptic flood on board a Swan pedalo, but this solo play written and performed by Nicola Wren has no songs and is very much down to earth. But don’t dismiss this as someone riding on Dugout’s coat-tails of success – she came into this fringe with a good reputation in her own right, and Replay was another excellent performance and play.
She plays a Police Constable very much married to her job, on a routine call on day with her well-meaning but overbearing colleague. It’s just a normal visit to support a woman whose husband killed himself the other day, and yet she feels sick and has to vomit in the street – the effect, she assumes, of the dodgy prawns she ate the night before and the old coffee in the house having limescale. Wrong. An indeterminate amount of time ago, her brother James killed himself. But that was such a long time she’s surely over it now. Then she gets birthday present in the post. An old present sent again, a happy birthday tape originally sent by James, is going to keep these memories at the surface.
“But why is the poster for the play a man with a cassette for his head?” I hear you ask. Well, no, you probably didn’t ask that. But you should. You see, this is a memory of the day when her child self went to visit the brother she adored, now at University in London. A ride on the simulator in the Trocadero and being bought an album (James, obviously) mean a lot when you’re ten. The only hint what what’s to come is her father quipping that James better not be having an off day. But clearly at some point it was never more than days.
There is no moment of revelation in the play, no plot twists, no breakthroughs, just a woman getting on with her life, with a tragedy from years ago still leaving its mark. And that is the whole point of this thoughtful and moving play. Dugout Theatre proper can take some share of the credit here her the writing and directing, but this is Nicola Wren’s moment of glory. If Dugout’s name has introduced her to a new audience that never knew her before, that can only be a good thing. Continue reading