EDINBURGH FRINGE 2013: REVIEW: All or Nothing?

Callàs Company

Greenside Venue

5 Aug 2013

runs until 24 Aug 2013

Going along to this show encompasses what I love about the Fringe. A random conversation with a theatregoer at C venues led to my friend and I making a mad dash to see his show at Greenside on our lunch break, with very little idea of what it would be like. As it turns out, this is one of my favourite shows of the Fringe so far — funny, charming, lacking in pretension and altogether wonderful.

The concept works beautifully: two characters live in a silent world, one in the realm of imagination and mime, and the other in the realm of physical reality. They meet, become friends, fall in love. It sounds a bit too simple to engage your attention, but the characters’ discovery of each other’s worlds is imaginative and witty, as mutual bafflement raises many a laugh. James Callàs Ball and Jasmine Blackborow’s mime is a joy to watch as the invisible, imaginary world is effortlessly brought to life through their performance, bringing humour to this light-hearted production without becoming over-exaggerated. It is, strangely, an utterly believable show despite its surreal plot.

Being only forty minutes, the show is a neat little production but should not be overlooked in the Fringe’s saturated programme, being well-constructed and faultlessly performed by a talented cast of two, in a new company making its début at the Fringe. The jazz soundtrack is reminiscent of the silent movies of the 1930s, but with a fresh twist and beat which helps to keep the pace quick and light. A spot of audience participation at the curtain call means I can now say I have (technically) performed on a Fringe stage, so extra thanks must go to them for that!

A definite recommendation for theatregoers of all ages: I defy you to leave without a smile on your face.

Edinburgh Fringe 2013: Pre-festival Picks

Photo by byronv2 under Creative Commons licence

Doesn’t time fly! It’s nearly that time of year again — when actors, directors, singers, comedians, writers, dancers, ventriloquists, poets, acrobats and performers of all kinds make the trek to Scotland’s capital to try their luck at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. And the rest of us follow, whether we’re a part of the action, reviewing their efforts, or simply enjoying it from a safe (we hope…) vantage point in the audience. As the world’s biggest arts festival grows steadily each year, 2013 will see more shows than ever gracing Edinburgh’s venues: at the last count, 2871 events encompassing over 24,000 performers.

With all those options offering thousands of different emotions, experiences and possibilities, how on earth do you separate the good, the bad and the ugly from your Fringe guide? I decided to come up with a Top 10 list of intriguing, promising or exciting things from this year’s festival — except, of course, there’s too much to choose from so even I had to resort to a Top 15 instead. Check ’em out:

1. I Need A Doctor: The Unauthorised Whosical Adventure — Stormy Teacup Theatre Ltd./Pleasance Courtyard/31 Jul  26 Aug/£6-11
Being a massive fan of Doctor Who and of musicals, I couldn’t really ignore this one. A parody of the beloved BBC One series with songs such as ‘Companion’s Lament’, ‘Phonebox of Love’ and the titular ‘I Need a Doctor‘, this is possibly the nerdiest show on the programme, but looks to be providing a healthy dose of silliness at the Pleasance Courtyard this year.

2. Titus Andronicus — Hiraeth Artistic Productions/theSpace@Surgeons Hall/2  24 Aug/£10-12
Shakespeare reinvented can go either of two ways, but this production may be on to an intelligent restaging. One of four productions of Titus Andronicus at the Fringe this year, this particular version reimagines the action of the Bard’s goriest tragedy in the midst of 1980s Britain. It’s a tough play to pull off, with all its over-the-top blood and guts — but in the violence of skinhead culture, the extreme emotions that lead to all this anger, vengeance and bloodshed start to make sense, and to really hit home.

3. Austentatious: An Improvised Jane Austen Novel — Milk Monitors/Laughing Horse @ The Counting House/1  25 Aug/Free Non-Ticketed
Anyone who read my blog during last year’s Fringe may remember how I raved about this lot — and I’m so happy to say they’re back! Some of the best improv you’ll see in terms of quickness and hilarity, and all Austen-themed. Austentatious manages to mock the author’s stereotypes whilst showing it holds much affection for her, and based on audience suggestions they construct a brand new Austen novel every day. Last year crowds were queuing down the street to see this, so arrive early! It’s lovely, and pretty astounding, to see that the show is still part of the Free Fringe, as I’m sure the troupe could sell out a ticketed event with no problems. A hugely likeable comedy group who will have you in stitches.

4. Rachel Parris: The Commission — Laughing Horse @ The Counting House/– 25 Aug/Free Non-Ticketed
Following on from Austentatious, many of their members are involved in other shows at the festival, including the delightful Rachel Parris. Often taking the role of naive, pretty heroine in the Austen-themed tales, her solo performance is a chance to see a wider range of her comedic and musical skills, with topics such as Disney and The X Factor on the promised list of targets. It will be great to see this talented performer showing she’s got a darker side and some real bite.

5. No Place Like — Le Mot Juste/Zoo/2 – 26 Aug/£4-9
A piece of physical, verbatim theatre inspired by real-life conversations, this work examines the lives of elderly care home residents: it’s nice to see that the play promotes itself as “a celebration of life”, rather than presenting these places as morbid or depressing, and there is the promise of comedy as well as poignancy in the variety of memories that emerge.

6. The Pin — Pleasance Courtyard/31 July – 26 Aug/£6-11
Again, this show is no new discovery for me as I saw these guys doing their thing — with much success, I might add — at university in Cambridge. Since then they’ve been busy making a name for themselves with a sell-out run at last year’s Fringe. However, things have changed recently as the trio has become a duo: it’ll be interesting to see how this changes their act, but with their usual combination of wit, silliness and deadpan delivery, booking early will surely still be necessary for these rising stars of the circuit.

7. Boys — No Prophet Theatre Company &  Close Up Theatre/C aquila/1 – 26 Aug/£6.50-10.50
Last year No Prophet Theatre (starring Will Merrick of Skins fame) took on Simon Stephens’ gritty shocker of a play, Punk Rock. And damn, was it good. They’re following up that edge-of-the-seat performance this year with dark comedy Boys, also focusing on a group of adolescents, this time on the edge of adulthood as they graduate from university. Its “drug-fuelled irresponsibility” recalls the glory days of Skins, but No Prophet’s 2012 production certainly showed that this group were not going to rely on the TV fame of one of their number. If the ensemble deliver as much electricity as last year, this will be one not to miss.

8. Nirbhaya — Assembly, Riverside Studios & Poorna Jagannathan/Assembly Hall/1 – 26 Aug/£10-16
Yael Farber took Edinburgh by storm in 2012, with a sell-out run for her searingly passionate and volatile Mies Julie, a South African adaptation of Strindberg’s 19th century classic that became the hot ticket of the festival. This summer she returns with a piece of new writing, which is set to be even more blisteringly gut-wrenching. Nirbhaya is inspired by the gang rape and murder oJyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi in 2012, which opened the floodgates for revelations about the brutal treatment of women in India; Nirbhaya (one of the pseudonyms used in the press for the victim, meaning ‘fearless one’) attempts to break through the silence that surrounded the issue. Mies Julie was the most powerful piece of theatre I have ever seen, and if Farber brings the same extraordinary rawness and explosiveness to these real-life events, it is sure to rock the Fringe this summer.

9. Dick Whittington — University of Bristol Pantomime Society/theSpace on North Bridge/2 – 17 Aug Aug/£4-7
Ok, ok — I’m a bit biased. There’s a small chance one of my loveliest best friends is starring in this. Nevertheless it’s also a great option if you want a bit of good old-fashioned fun and silliness with a healthy dose of grown-up wit and humour. These students from Bristol are experts at serving up everything you’d expect from a panto, but with added extras and without too much of the cheese on top. With romance, songs and a dastardly villain, this is sure to put a smile on your face — plus it’s great value for money!

10. Voices Made Night — The Magnet Theatre Company & Baxter Theatre Centre/Assembly Hall/1 – 26 Aug/£10-15
It seems that South African theatre is showing us all how it’s done. Here the nation’s top physical theatre company arrive in Edinburgh with their adaptations of the short stories of Mozambican author, Mia Couto. Described previously as “the cutting edge of South African art and culture”, this company seek to relate his tales of love, loss, transformation, damage and forgiveness through the use of physical theatre and ever-changing characterisation and movement. Expect theatre that is passionate, moving and altogether beautiful.

11. Our Glass House — Common Wealth/Summerhall/13 – 25 Aug/Free Ticketed
Promenade and site-specific theatre are always to be found scattered across a fringe festival, and can work either fantastically or terribly. A promenade piece always feels like a risky choice, as the directorial decisions are so different to those of a conventional narrative work. Yet if the effect is truly immersive, it can be incredibly powerful. One such production, which certainly has the potential to be uncomfortable in either a good or bad way, is Our Glass House, a new work exploring domestic abuse. Staging this in a residential house should bring home (literally) the reality of this issue, as it is seen in its true setting rather than within the artifice of a theatre. Using fantasy, songs and choreography, there are a lot of elements in this — it has the potential to be too fragmented to deliver real energy or power, but if it is judged right it could be a truly eye-opening and compelling work.

12. Alice in Wonderland — Oxford University Dramatic Society/C nova/31 Jul – 26 Aug/£4.50-10.50
Having taken on the tricky tale of a murderess, Machinal, at last year’s Fringe, OUDS are back with the rather lighter offering of Alice in Wonderland. Bringing out the vibrant insanity and twisty darkness of Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s novel, this adaptation throws you right into the world of the Mad Hatter and all his weird and wonderful companions — jump down the rabbit hole if you dare!

13. Nish Kumar is a Comedian — Nish Kumar/Underbelly, Bristo Square/31 Jul – 25 Aug/£6-11
After catching him guest-performing at the Footlights Free Show last year (one to look out for, by the way), I was impressed by Nish Kumar’s set. Charming, witty, fresh and sharp, he delivers easy gags that nonetheless have a bite to them: certainly a name to keep an eye on, his one-hour show at Underbelly will be a tenner well spent!

14. Desperately Seeking the Exit — Peter Michael Marino/Laughing Horse @ The Counting House/1 – 25 Aug/Free Non-Ticketed
When you’ve invested a whole heap of time and money into a new West End musical and it closes within a month, you might lock yourself in your house and weep for a year, hiding from the embarrassment and despondency that might accompany such a flop — certainly, you might hide from the critics who gave it a panning. Peter Michael Marino has done no such thing: when Desperately Seeking Susan (the plot of the Madonna film of the same name, with the hits of Blondie crammed unceremoniously into it) turned out to be a bit of an epic fail back in 2007, Marino turned the situation to his advantage. Taking his new show’s title from a damning review by Charles Spencer, Desperately Seeking the Exit tells the tale of how his musical flopped so badly, turning a theatrical car crash into an original, brutally honest, camp yet sensitive comedy. A phoenix of a show — from the ashes comes a new triumph.

15. Jonny and the Baptists: Bigger Than Judas — Pleasance Dome/31 July – 26 Aug/£6-10
Some musical comedy to round up my picks of the programme. Last year while editing Ed Fringe Review, my co-editor and I discovered this band and listened to their hilarious album on repeat in times of stress. With catchy tunes, sharp satire and a dash of absolute nonsense, Jonny and the Baptists make you laugh even more each time you hear their songs, as you pick up subtleties and asides that may have slipped by you the first time. More than one visit is a must!

Thoughts on being a critic…

Critics have themselves become the focus of criticism recently, with many an article and post on the matter emerging in recent months. This is me adding my thoughts into the mix – possibly in a slightly garbled manner, I grant you – about how I see it as a young critic, part of the new breed trying to break through.

Being a critic, in my experience, puts you in an odd position when it comes to the world of theatre. You’re in amongst the action – yet you’re not really in the fold. You’re a part of the industry – but you’re never going to be in the thesp or techie gang. It’s not hard to see why, either. But, whilst knowing that being best mates and bosoms pals with the people you’re critiquing would be not only awkward but potentially detrimental to your review, our strangely liminal position also saddens me a little: I truly believe that theatre critics are a necessary part of the performing arts industry. (Possibly it’s also because I can’t help a part of me in vain still believing, or hoping, that it’s all glitz and glamour and fame.)

On a basic level, it provides the public with a service: recommendations of what to see, what to avoid (I know, you know this. There’s a point to it, promise…). Just like a travel manual for a city, it’s a map and a personal tour guide through the must-sees and don’t-sees of what’s currently on. Of course, it’s the ‘personal’ bit that people can object to. Subjectivity of reviews is a common complaint that I’ve heard; and then, occasionally, there are those accusations of “Well they just didn’t get it”. Of course one person’s opinion isn’t necessarily the be-all and end-all on a show. We all know that. That’s largely why I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that more and more reviewers are emerging from different corners. The Edinburgh Fringe epitomised this issue this year, with a few whispers about too many reviewers diluting the relevancy of critical opinion. Yet the shows complain if anyone dares to suggest their (negative) review could represent a definitive truth – so we can’t win really. The increasing number of opinions out there – from nationals to smaller publications to humble little blogs such as my own – should be celebrated (look at how many people are watching theatre, and thinking about it, and writing about it – it’s GREAT!), acknowledged and used as a platform for conversation and debate. Critics should be speaking – personally and publicly – to each other to a wider extent to get even more people discussing and engaging with theatre. How could that possibly be a bad thing? Of course people want to reach the top of their field, and of course there’s the practical business element: publications want to be selling more copies or getting more hits than their rivals. But – and I know I’m starting to sound a bit like that girl from Mean Girls – it would be exciting to have more visible communication and support between different kinds of critics to get conversation about theatre to a higher profile. Twitter is of course a great platform for this, and the debate just the other week about ‘Ageist Arts’ threw up some very interesting viewpoints and arguments. Yet it would be fascinating if there were more in-depth opportunities to discuss performances and industry issues in an open community (not just those who are lucky enough to get paid for what they write), interactively (the speed of Twitter is what makes the debate come alive) and without the restriction of 120 characters. This of course would allow the old masters and the new kids on the block to converse and debate on an even playing field.

Which brings up another issue in the world of the critic. Amateurs. Anyone with access with the internet can call themselves a critic these days, as a small number of disapproving writers have pointed out, their words dripping with disdain. I suppose you could say I’m proof of this, although my experience pre-blogging does come from positions and contributions I’ve had to apply for in some way. But I doubt it would have stopped me from publishing this blog if this hadn’t been the case. It was a point that was thrown directly in the faces of some of our EFR reviewers at this year’s Fringe: on two occasions that I know of, our student critics were challenged, on the Mile or in a venue, by someone who felt we were unfit to review. Who were we? What training had we had? What right had we to write “anything we liked” about these shows? Well, in a world of blogs and social networking and online interactivity, we can technically – within reason and the law of course – write anything we like. Of course, we don’t. We have a particular aim, our reviewers were presented with style guides, tips and of course their reviews were edited if necessary. But the issue goes beyond practical points of organisation. These comments and accusations were troubling and offensive to me because of their attitude to young critics and student writers. I’m not sure what “training” these people expected us to have, but the best form of training is experience. Yes, you can improve your grammar, or perhaps be given lessons in the art of a witty opener. But if you’re seeing lots of theatre, thinking lots about theatre and most of all writing lots about it, that’s training: and that’s the way to improve. Certainly, young and amateur reviewers such as myself and other EFR reviewers (and many, many others at the Fringe and beyond) will have less experience. It may appear laughable that I’m here writing about the way to becoming a good critic when I am only 21 and have only been reviewing for a couple of years. But to suggest that we stop reviewing for these reasons is ludicrous. The whole point is to encourage and, if you like, “train” a new generation of critics.

Take, for example, the current production of Twelfth Night at the Globe: there is no press night until the West End transfer, a point discussed by Mark Shenton in his blog for The Stage (‘Shenton’s View’). Therefore, for the large part, the reviews coming in are unofficial, from the pens and keyboards of paying audience members: from those well-known for their writing (e.g. Dominic Cavendish, who took it upon himself to purchase a ticket in order to review the show) to those lesser known members of the public putting their opinion out there on blogs or social networking sites. And oh look – some of them are interesting, articulate, well-informed! Who knew! And although they may not have quite the readership that Cavendish’s Telegraph review will have got, on that one night they saw and heard the same show as him, and decided to write up their thoughts, opinions and judgements just as he did. Some of them will be better written and have more supporting knowledge than others; but the point is that, unusually, these opinions are the ones that might be read for a change, in the absence of organised press. Which is great! Let’s face it, if we leave it all up to the Michael Billingtons and Lyn Gardners of the world, what happens when they’re no longer writing? And how does a new breed of young, enthusiastic, talented writers emerge if not through experience, practice and recognition?

This is one of the most frustrating elements of being a critic in the context of student theatre in particular. The investment into student productions can be epic in terms of time, emotion, creative belief and – sometimes – money. It is of course natural that nobody likes getting a negative review. Furthermore, it is certainly reasonable that performers, directors and anyone else involved should not expect to be personally attacked, mocked or insulted in a review – every comment should be fair, relevant and justified. But are reviewers extended the same courtesy? Well, not always. I have seen and heard critics being slated by dissatisfied thesps and comedians more savagely than the critic themselves slated the show. Why is it acceptable in one direction and not the other? There can be (and in most cases should be) a tendency to show generosity towards young performers, which is important to encourage fresh creative talent: they’re trying something new; the intention was there, if not the execution; credit where it’s due, they’re a young team with potential; they’re learning their way in the industry. Well, so are young critics. We too are learning how to be the best that we can be – developing our art, finding our voice, adjusting and practising and finding our way, and always improving. Feedback is great. Rejection and dismissal is not.

At university, there are so many opportunities to be a critic; beyond this, the trail in search of a paid job runs cold for many. Amongst all the schemes encouraging youngsters into the arts, critics should not be forgotten. Being dismissed as “amateurs” and therefore not worthy of having our opinion heard is disheartening, rather insulting and not healthy for the field, which needs to have new blood just as much as the realms of directing, writing and acting. I’m not saying everyone would write good reviews. But many would. And yes, I’ll be confident and brave and say it – I would. We’re all part of this fantastic industry, this amazing world of theatre – and we shouldn’t be shut out

Lessons From The Fringe

After a week at home recovering from Fringe Fatigue, it’s time to reflect on my time in Edinburgh. In list form, because I’m moving to start a job tomorrow so things are a bit busy at the moment! So, with apologies for the slight lack of coherent prose, here’s a smattering of things I learned at the Fringe:

1) Expect the unexpected.

I very quickly discovered that my capacity to be surprised dissolved and vanished away in Edinburgh. Things that I was doubtful about took my breath away, shows I looked forward to let me down; the Royal Mile was always providing another unexpected sight; old friends popped up at every corner, new friends emerged; and you never quite knew if you’d just walked past an unusually glamorous woman or one of the Ladyboys of Bangkok. So, I learned to leave all expectations behind me and be prepared for anything!

2) Deep fried Mars bars are not as nice as people tell you.

I was assured by two very trustworthy (or so I thought…) EFR reviewers that this stereotypically Scottish snack was in fact addictively tasty. I found it was disappointing and gave me stomach ache. Although, the fact that the Marchmont Takeaway (whose staff are lovely, by the way) will deep fry any of the confectionery that they sell makes a return visit tempting. Next time I’m going for a deep fried Crunchie – maybe that’ll convert me to the cause. But I doubt it.

3) Do not attempt to walk down the Royal Mile if you’re late.

Or, don’t be late if you know you have to walk down the Mile. Or else, perfect your kamikaze dodging technique. The number of times I left with plenty of time to spare yet ended up sprinting the last couple of streets would fill an entire blog post of their own, and it was always because my route took me down the Mile. Even if you’re a persistent flyer-dodger, it is a simple fact of the Fringe that you cannot get down that road quickly. Although quite honestly, why would you want to?

4) Living statues’ paint is surprisingly waterproof.

Ok, this may not be a vital life lesson, but I was intrigued to hear from a silvery lady in Caffe Nero that in fact her metallic body paint would not run in the downpour that the Edinburgh skies were dumping on us. It’s just that she didn’t like rain very much.

5) ZOO Venues and Edinburgh Zoo are NOT the same place.

Before someone makes a joke about dumb blondes, I never had to learn this lesson – obvious, I thought. Apparently not, as one of our reviewers proved when, just as she was enjoying the gift shop and panda exhibit, she realised that in fact the play which was due to start ten minutes later was not somewhere between the monkey and the meerkat enclosure, but the other side of Edinburgh. In a theatre. Not a zoo. Just in case you’re still confused, here’s a brief description from their websites: we’ve got “one of the leading venue management companies on the Edinburgh Fringe, with two thriving theatres at the heart of the Festival” and “the largest and most exciting wildlife attraction in Scotland, committed to the highest standards of animal welfare, conservation and environmental education.” Worked out which one is which? Excellent. Remember that.

6) Not everything should have ‘The Musical’ stuck onto the end of the title.

There seems to be an ever-increasing sector of shows with this particular suffix. I love musicals – always have and always will. But not everything should necessarily be given the all-singing, all-dancing treatment. Bereavement: The Musical and Sex Ed: The Musical both get a big fat YES. Andy and the Prostitutes: The Musical? Doubtful. The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Musical? No. Just… no.

7) Arthur’s Seat is worth an afternoon away from the festival.

It’s quick and easy to climb and the views are beautiful. And you hear some gems of bad geography if you eavesdrop on conversations at the top as people try to get their bearings. “Isn’t Stonehenge near here? Oh no, wait – that’s in Italy isn’t it…” I have no idea if this person made it back to her house without getting lost, but I have my doubts.

8) The Fringe is addictive.

I came home sleep-deprived, never wanting to send an email again and seeing press releases and reviews and stars whenever I closed my eyes. But I’m going back next year, no question. I may have got Fringe fatigue, but I also caught Fringe fever – I’m officially a life-long fan. No matter how tired you get, the sheer amount of amazing, surprising, hilarious (whether intentionally or not) and heart-rending theatre that is on show here is unparalleled, from the most traditional of Shakespearean productions to the newest comedians on the circuit to an eleven minute performance in a prison cell. One year’s taste of it is not enough. Thank you Edinburgh, you were great.

THEATRE REVIEW: Sex Ed: The Musical (Edinburgh Fringe)

Out Write Productions

Edinburgh Fringe – theSpace @ Surgeons’ Hall

25 August 2012

Sex Ed: The Musical bills itself as a show which will tell you “Everything you never wanted to know about sex”. I think that should be altered slightly – it’s everything you thought you never wanted to know about sex, until you witnessed it all put into a series of very catchy songs and hilarious dances, at which point you couldn’t imagine how you wouldn’t want to hear about it.

The inaugural production of new theatre company Out Write Productions, this show caused hysterical laughter to break out throughout the audience as the riotously funny cast of seven take sixteen-year-old Gilbert and Gladys – along with the audience – on a journey through all the ins and outs (yes, pun intended – I stole it from the show) of sex, from contraception to technique and positions to sexual orientation. It’s all very silly, of course: sperm is represented by sock puppets, STIs are likened to cheese and phrases such as “vaginally tardy” are thrown around the stage. But the show manages to tread the line between funny and crude with skill, and ensure that serious issues are not trivialised whilst also having a lot of fun. This extends to the set, props and scene changes: the use of labels and signs indicates a home-made aspect to the show, but rather than highlighting any sense of unprofessionalism, cardboard signs such as “If We Had a Budget This Would Be A Scene Change” or “Focus On The Sign!” bring an extra dash of charming humour to the show.

Bethan Rigby and Isobel Wolff steal the show with their hilarious characterisation of Barbara and Glenda respectively. Rigby’s sense of physical comedy is spot-on, uproariously over-the-top at times but also touching in her own journey of self-discovery. Wolff’s motherly naivety is a brilliant foil to Agatha’s (Emily Snee) brashness and Hildegard’s (Lizzie Hartley) hopeless disorganisation and never-ending pregnancies. Vicky Buxton as Bob also provides many laughs with her forthright nature, and has one of the strongest voices in the musical numbers. The songs are all performed with gusto, and credit should really be given to all the cast for their ability to make it through numbers such as ‘Swallow My Pride’ with a straight face – there certainly wasn’t a single one to be found in the audience. Moments of hilarity came one after the other: from enforced audience participation on the part of two unsuspecting theatregoers who were made to wear ‘W**ker’ labels, to the transformation of shy Gilbert into a “kinky” lover, the show combined a wicked sense of humour and a warm heart which was encapsulated perfectly by the closing number of ‘Go F**k Yourself’.

There is a plethora of shows at the Fringe who have decided to stick ‘:The Musical’ onto the end of their title – enough to make me nervous about them all. Yet Sex Ed: The Musical certainly does not merit this anxiety, as the hilarious script and the relentless energy of the cast make for an hour-and-a-bit of unstoppable fun and hilarity.