Review – An Elephant in the Garden

Dairy Room – Underbelly Bristo Square

05/08/18

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Based on Michael Morpurgo’s 2009 novel of the same name, An Elephant in the Garden is an enchanting and moving one-woman show, performed by Alison Reid. Set around the 1945 Dresden bombing, this production tells the story of our narrator, Lizzie, as she embarks on the long walk from Dresden to seek refuge with American troops with her mother, and Marlene, an elephant.

Perhaps I should explain the elephant before I continue? Marlene (named after Marlene Dietrich) was in Dresden Zoo where Lizzie’s mother worked and, when the bombings happened, was to be shot along with all of the other animals to prevent them from running wild across the city. Rather than let that happen, Lizzie’s mother adopts the elephant and brings her to live in their back garden, and so we find ourselves with a steady stalwart elephant friend who plods through the story, acting as its spine, drawing the characters forward alongside her, and provides a memorable metaphor for persistence, care and humanity.

An Elephant in the Garden is, at face value, a beautiful feat of storytelling, but as we get further into the story another important note shines through.  As Lizzie’s uncle argues in support of the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, it is difficult to avoid the parallels to some of the arguments of the 21st Century far-right. Similarly, as Lizzie discusses their journey, the portions of it that they make with other people, he shelter they find in the house of the countess, their six month spent in a ‘Camp for Displaced People,’ it is impossible not to think of the people still making life-threatening journeys in search of refuge, of the people in the camps in Calais, of those in direct provision in Ireland. People are still in these impossibly difficult situations.  Though the play does not directly allude to any contemporary parallels, the opportunity is there, to learn from the past and find the strength of compassion needed to stop these things continuing to happen another 70-odd years from now.

An Elephant in the Garden is a beautifully performed story that looks back to the past, but in doing so provides an insight into the present.

An Elephant in the Garden runs at Underbelly Bristo Square until 27th August as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Review – The Kagools: Kula

Just the Tonic at the Caves

04/08/18

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Silent physical comedy duo, The Kagools, are on the hunt for a missing key. Blending video and live performance, the pair embark on a madcap hour’s search that involves a lot of audience interaction, slapstick humour, and water balloons.

The Kagools are adept physical comedians, creating a comic pair reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy. Neither character is sensible or particularly prone to getting things right, but one is clearly the leader and believes herself to be the brains and talent of the operation. This pairing of characters sets up a strong comic foundation as the performers exploit the imbalance between them for numerous gags, from jealous competition over a love interest, to a drawn out battle with a roll of sellotape.

However, the greatest imbalance in the show often lies between the performers and the audience rather than between the two characters. As I previously mentioned, there is a high level of audience interaction in the show, with audience members regularly being pulled up on stage to take part in various ridiculous scenarios.  Though many of these interactive moments delivered numerous laughs and gags, at times there was an uncomfortable sense to the interactions, as audience members were prompted to do things that they did not necessarily seem comfortable doing, including soaking other audience members with water balloons, unexpectedly playing a love interest, or having their handbag taken and rifled through on stage. These could all have been entertaining and positive interactions, but not without a sense of consent, which was sometimes sorely lacking in this production. Similarly, splashing the audience with water is one matter, but throwing clouds of talcum powder around the auditorium was a step too far; anyone with breathing difficulties would be wise to avoid this show.

Though The Kagools’ performances are strong, and their use of video to add layers to the production, and facilitate the portrayal of additional characters is ingenious and effective, Kula suffers from a lack of consideration of the welfare of their audience.

The Kagools: Kula runs at Just the Tonic at the Caves until  August 26th as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Review – Wilde Creatures

Pleasance Courtyard

04/08/18

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Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, though few in number are enormous in the scope of their understanding. They are snapshots of reality through an imaginative lens that teaches vital lessons in kindness, generosity, understanding and respect. Taking the story of The Happy Prince as a frame, Wilde Creatures deftly draws elements of almost all of Wilde’s fairy tales together to bring these lessons, and the beautiful stories that convey them, vividly to life on stage.

The town has become very quiet, the beautiful statue of the Happy Prince is no more, and the Mayor has stopped children from playing in the town centre in order to keep it tidy. The town is not happy. It is decided that there should be a new statue to liven up the town square, but the question is, who deserves to be the subject of this statue? Of course the self-important town Mayor believes the statue should be of him, but the townspeople decide to take a vote. Performing various Wilde fairy tales through storytelling and song, the Wile Creatures ask whether the statue should be of Little Hans, the student, or the princess. As they tell their stories, gradually the townspeople, and the audience, learn that maybe the best way to liven up the town is not through creating a statue of a powerful (selfish, greedy or unkind) person, but by opening back up the square to everyone and caring for its citizens who are struggling.

The Wilde Creatures display impressive versatility as performers, playing multiple musical instruments, and flitting between characters in the stories with gusto. Tom Jude’s overbearing Mayor and Lauren Silver’s brattish princess are two highlights, with both performers creating delightfully unlikeable characters. Alongside the strong performances, Barney George’s ingenious set creates a changeable, captivating Wilde world.

Wilde Creatures is a lively, charming production that reminds us that “humans are the most beautiful flowers of all.”

Wilde Creatures runs at Pleasance Courtyard on alternate days with The Canterville Ghost until 26th August as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Review – Lights Over Tesco Car Park

Poltergeist Theatre

Pleasance Jack Dome

04/08/18

 

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Sorry, are you an alien?

No? You sure?

Ok. Just checking.

 

Though, actually, I don’t mind if you are, as long as you’re reading my work…

 

Since we’re all (probably) from Earth, and so might have a chance to see Poltergeist Theatre’s production of Lights Over Tesco Car Park (I’m not sure what the spaceship parking situation is around Edinburgh at the moment), I’m going to write a little something about the show.

The show has clearly started before you walk in the door. As you take your seats with the Cantina Band, S Club 7 and other cosmic classics playing, the performers chat and brownies are passed around.

An alien is introduced.

And the story is underway.

Lights Over Tesco Car Park follows the story of Rosa, Alice, Julia and Will as they work out whether to believe Robert’s report of an alien encounter. In between conversations with Robert, where he reports that he saw mysterious red lights over the car park in Tesco, and later informs them that an alien is coming to stay in his Air B&B room, the group indulges in thought experiments, eats many flying saucers, and explores historical abduction stories with the audience. Though there is a lot of audience interaction in the show, it was a low-pressure form of interaction, with any audience member that volunteered truly being a volunteer; no one was singled out at any point, the performers simply opened the space for any audience member to join them. Alongside this, there were instances in which the whole audience were invited to get involved, in a similarly low-focus manner. The words “audience interaction” can often strike dread into an audience, but Poltergeist Theatre have it nailed; without a doubt it was some of the best handling of audience involvement I have seen.

Alongside this, the overall execution of the piece was impressive, with Jack Bradfield’s writing tying potentially disparate parts together into a seamless journey. Simple changes from warm to cold washes in the lighting design and a detailed sound design by Alice Boyd complete the well crafted, consciously theatrical world of the piece.

Near the start of the play, the words “All of this is true” appear on the screen at the back of the stage, and in an odd way, it is all true. As they follow Robert’s story, the four performers/characters gently investigate what it means to be human, to connect, to make up community, to be together. Even though it is a play about aliens, Lights Over Tesco Car Park is an acutely honest, human play.

Lights Over Tesco Car Park runs at Pleasance Jack Dome until 27th August as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Review – Any Suggestions, Doctor? An Improvised Adventure in Space and Time

Sweet Venue, Grassmarket

Edinburgh Festival Fringe

03/08/18

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I’ve seen some episodes of Doctor Who; the odd one as I hibernate in a nest of cushions over Christmas holidays, or as I wander into the room while someone else is already watching it. I know very little about the adventures of the Time Lord. So, of course, I went to an improvised Dr. Who show. A sensible choice.

Thankfully it quickly became evident that any knowledge of Doctor Who is not necessary to enjoy Any Suggestions, Doctor? Taking the standard improv format of asking the audience for suggestions before creating a story around them, the performers ask the audience to choose someone to play the Doctor, choose a title and finally a location. Yesterday the episode was transported to an apartment complex in New York City, as the Moon Men attempted to take over the world.

The ensemble strike a balance between pushing the narrative forward, and providing plenty of laughs through heir madcap improvisations. Even when performers are set on ridiculous paths by the other members of the cast, they make the most of them and the story continues to push forward. Particularly adept at maintaining the narrative pace and energy of the piece was Harry Whittaker, who zipped on and off stage, playing three different characters in an almost alarmingly fast rotation.

With questionable New York accents, a memorable if almost unrecognisable rendition of ‘Memory’ (from Cats), and a healthy dose of meta-theatrical messing, Any Suggestions, Doctor? is an entertaining improvised comedy for Whovians and Who’sthats? alike.

Any Suggestions Doctor? An Improvised Adventure in Space and Time runs at Sweet Venue, Grassmarket until August 26th as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Review – Tom Brace: Brace Yourself (It’s Magic Time!)

Pleasance Courtyard – The Green

Edinburgh Festival Fringe

03/08/18

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Despite an enthusiasm for magic tricks that verges on the ridiculous, watching a show in a warm inflatable igloo did not appeal to me earlier this morning as I arrived at The Green at Pleasance Courtyard. I looked forward to it even less as I saw the crowd filing into the venue and imagined the combined warmth of the weather and a full house. But within two minutes of Tom Brace’s Brace Yourself (It’s Magic Time!) getting underway, all crotchetiness was quickly forgotten.

The effervescent Brace opens the show with an enthusiastic round of greetings to the audience before launching into a hilarious opening comic routine which sets the high-energy, joyfully daft tone for the rest of the performance. Though Brace draws on classic tricks, he puts his own spin on most of them, including creating a bizarre game-show setting for one trick, executing a dentist’s nightmare with a paintball gun, and weaving a strong comic performance through every trick.

Throughout the hour-long performance, the energy never drops, and Brace flies deftly through his set with an air of unquenchable enthusiasm, and more than a little mischief. Still puzzling over how on earth he pulled off some of the tricks he did, I highly recommend Brace Yourself (It’s Magic Time!), to anyone, children and grown-ups alike, who finds themselves with some spare time any morning of the Fringe. If you want to catch a magic show this Fringe, then this should be it.

Tom Brace: Brace Yourself (It’s Magic Time!) runs at Pleasance Courtyard until 18th August as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Review – Clowntown: I Can Do Anything

Clowntown: I Can Do Anything

Surgeon’s Hall

Edinburgh Fringe

03/08/18

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“In Clowntown everyone’s funny,
In Clowntown we don’t need money,
In Clowntown nobody’s wearing a crown.”

Candy and Dandy of The Sphere Clown Band take to the stage with their various musical instruments to introduce their audience to Clowntown, a town where you can do anything. The younger members of the audience are invited onto the stage where they are made honorary members of the town council of Clowntown, and invited to dance along to a number of songs, try out Clown exercises and enjoy some magic tricks.

This production is at times an enjoyable interactive show that was well received by its younger audience, who launched themselves into “Clownercise” and their roles as zoo animals with gusto. However, though it is a lively and entertaining show, there are times at which Clowntown finds its audience drifting as the pace draws out. It does not seem confident in itself, which leaves it feeling somewhat clumsy and haphazard. While the classic trope of the clown attempting and failing comically at something was employed effectively at times, at others it felt more that the performer was not in control. The clown character may be struggling, but to retain the audience’s engagement the performer needs to retain control and confidence. As we reached the final song, “I Can do Anything,” the haphazard feeling to the piece continued. The song incorporated performance in American Sign Language, which was a nice element, but it was the first time it was introduced in the piece, seeming more of an afterthought than an intrinsic element. Similarly, the title of the song, “I Can Do Anything” was introduced as the theme of the piece (which is also mentioned in the title), but the theme was not notably present throughout the rest of the show.

Clowntown is a fun production, with good ideas and intentions which don’t quite come to fruition over the course of the show.

Clowntown: I Can Do Anything runs at the Space @ Surgeon’s Hall until August 25th as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

The Search for a Black-Browed Albatross

The Backpack Ensemble

Pleasance King Dome

Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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02/08/18

Charlie is on the hunt for the Black-Browed Albatross, the final bird on her late father’s life-list. He died when she was 20 and now, at 22, she is completing the journey he never got to make. As she adventures through the Highlands in search of the elusive bird, she hopes to rekindle their relationship that they lost before his death.

The Backpack Ensemble bring this story of a woman and her family trying to come to terms with the death of her father beautifully to life in this charming production. Losing a loved one is never easy, and especially in a situation like Charlie’s, where you had lost touch beforehand, but this production explores the experience of loss in a nuanced, astute and accessible way. Charlie’s relationship with her brother and mother, which has become more distant since the death of her father, is portrayed in an insightful way, examining the balance between family responsibility and responsibilities to oneself. Similarly, the memories of her time with her father seem so real that the audience is immediately drawn in.

The production is characterised by simple but effective devices such as the large screen used to switch between different places, as well as between memory and present, using shadow puppetry and adapting the screen to create different set-pieces. One of the most effective elements of the production was the self-awareness and conscious theatricality of the piece. The actors introduced themselves before adopting their characters, and moments of narration of what the actors were doing, rather than the characters, were peppered throughout the play. Though it employs elements of Brechtian distancing, this actually serves to make the story more engaging. By noting that they have drawn certain parts of the narrative from their own lives, The Backpack Ensemble create a space for the audience to find and examine their own experiences; this may be a made-up story, but it doesn’t mean it’s not real.

The Search for a Black Browed Albatross broaches the subject of loss in a thoughtful and honest way that is moving and entertaining in equal measure. For children aged 8+, this production is a beautiful introduction into the different ways people deal with grief, and of the hope that can be found beyond that.

The Search for a Black Browed Albatross runs at the Pleasance King Dome until 9th August as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

The Ten Fringe Commandments

Originally published in TN2 Magazine as: Edinburgh Fringe Festival: The Ten Fringe Commandments. A Heavenly Guide to Navigating the Holiest of Fringes

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Ask anyone interested in the arts what they think of when they hear “Edinburgh” and what will they say?

(Don’t say Trainspotting or Jean Brodie, you’ll ruin my point.)

Yes, that’s right, it’s the Edinburgh Festivals.

For four weeks every August, the city is taken over by the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (and the Edinburgh International Book Festival, though I have yet to attend that one). Both the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe were established seventy years ago in 1947 and, with the recent news that the Scottish Government has pledged an additional 10 million in funding for the Festivals; they are set to continue for a long time yet. The International Festival was founded in the wake of World War Two by Rudolph Bing and Henry Harvey Wood as a curated festival where high-quality theatre, music, dance and opera productions are brought from across the world to Edinburgh by invitation of the Festival Director. However, Fringe had a more interesting beginning (and arguably a more interesting future), and so it’s the Fringe that I am here to write about. The Fringe had a less official beginning in 1947 when eight theatre companies arrived in Edinburgh, uninvited, to perform at the Edinburgh International Festival. Though they were not there under the official auspices of the Festival, they made use of the already-present audiences and staged their work in alternative venues on…you’ve guessed it…the fringes of the International Festival. These performers set a precedent for others to imitate them in following years and the Fringe grew as a volunteer led event until 1958 when the Festival Fringe Society formed, formalising the Fringe’s existence and has continued to grow since then to become the World’s largest arts festival. To this day the Fringe Society follows the same basic principles of the original Fringe; though they will organise bookings, programmes and co-ordination of the thousands of productions that are staged, there is no vetting process like there is in the International Festival. As they say on their own website, the will include in the programme “anyone with a story to tell and a venue willing to host them.”

Despite that torrent of information I just delivered, and the fact that I am a massive theatre addict, until this year I had never been to Edinburgh during festival time, but with both the International Festival and the Fringe celebrating their 70th year in 2017, I chose the right year for my first visit. As I was over reviewing work at the Fringe with the Network of Independent Critics for the last week in August, I had a jam-packed week in which  saw twenty-two shows, wrote many words, and walked many, many miles. I dived in at the deep-end, programme clutched to my chest, and spent a week sprinting from venue to venue up and down the city’s many hills and steps, fuelled by coffee, baked potatoes and a wild enthusiasm for theatre.

It was fantastic.

However, with 3,398 shows running at Fringe this year (and probably as many if not more next year), and the streets filled with excitement, performances, posters and, well, Fringe, it’s easy to find yourself drowning a little in the deluge of flyers, choices and chances, so I have put together a wee list to let you learn from my mistakes and get you acquainted with Edinburgh and the Fringe.

 

The Ten Fringe Commandments:

 

  1. Thou shalt not plan thy Fringe to the very last minute.

(There are always a few gems you may have missed in the programme. Leave yourself time and space to discover new things.)

  1. Thou shalt not narrow thine options.

( Sure, you may not think you’ll like that Morris Dance show about Madonna and existentialism, but you might surprise yourself. The thing you take a chance on may be terrible, but you might just stumble upon the next Pythons.)

  1. Thou shalt sleep.

(This is the voice of experience. You feel invincible at the start and going to that breakfast show after going to that gig that began at 2am seems entirely reasonable, but remember to pace yourself. By the end of a week you’ll be glad you pencilled in time to sleep.)

  1. Man cannot live on hasty snacks alone.

(Same as above. Nature Valley bars are great, but have at least one decent meal a day. If you’re staying somewhere with a kitchen, cook and freeze a few basic meals in advance, and remember that Edinburgh has a lot of delicious places to eat; leave space in your budget to explore a few of them.)

  1. Thou shalt remember to wear layers and comfortable shoes.

(Prepare for every season and lots of walking.)

  1. Thou shalt check and double-check thy venues.

(You don’t want to be left racing from Pleasance Courtyard to Pleasance Dome at the last minute.)

  1. Thou shalt leave thyself time.

(On a similar note to the sixth commandment, make sure you have time to get between shows and leave yourself some contingency time. I thought it would be no problem to trot the five minute walk between venues in the ten-minute gap between shows, but I forgot that the five minute walk was up a sizeable hill. I could have lit the whole show with the glow from my beetroot, breathless face.)

  1. Thou shalt talk to strangers.

(No, I don’t mean the scary ones down dark alleyways, but chat to the person next to you in the queue at box office or when you’re hanging around venues. Word-of-mouth is one of the best ways to discover exciting work you might not have heard of otherwise.)

  1. Thou shalt remember that there is more to Edinburgh than the Festivals.

(With all the festival-ing, don’t forget to take some time out to clear your head. Lots of people decide to climb Arthur’s Seat, but if you’re looking for a less strenuous escape take yourself for a picnic at the Botanic Gardens or have a wander round one of the city’s many museums and galleries.)

  1. Thou shalt enjoy thyself.

(The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world; throw yourself in, enjoy the unexpected, make memories and have fun!)

Now, my young Fringelings, you have a year to prepare. Go forth, write plays, save money, play “Yes, and…,” get excited for Fringe and let these commandments help you on your way.

The Extraordinary Time-Travelling Adventures of Baron Munchausen – Edinburgh Fringe Review

New Town Theatre

27/08/17

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As is the case with anything improvised, it is difficult to review it in the same way as I would another theatre show; the stories I saw on Saturday are not going to be the same as those you might see on the day you see it. However, I can say with confidence that the stories you will see in The Extraordinary Time-Travelling Adventures of Baron Munchausen will probably be hilarious and entertaining.

The trio of performers base their sketches off of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (a 1988 film directed by Terry Gilliam), but take suggestions from the audience, which brings an even greater touch of the absurd to the tales than was there to begin with. Using characters such as Magesterious Wizard and Sir Jonah of Wales, the performers deliver confident, quick-thinking performances in which jokes and gags abound.

On the day I attended Jeremy Corbyn was conveniently speaking upstairs, lending himself as material for many topical jokes throughout. Alongside this, the performers retained information they gathered from the audience and, rather than simply incorporating it into the piece at the time that they asked for it, they created running jokes throughout that had the audience joining in conspiratorial laughter as they anticipated the directions of the tales.

Blending smart comedy and daft gags, The Extraordinary Time-Travelling Adventures of Baron  Munchausen is an entertaining production that is as unpredictable as it is absurd.