Nowhere in the world is word of mouth more important than at the Edinburgh Fringe. News about acts (both terrific and awful) spreads like wildfire, and the more people you talk to, the better-informed you’ll be. Such fun!
The festival was established in 1947 as an alternative to the ‘high arts’ of the Edinburgh International Festival and has continued to grow each year. It’s now famous across the world and it draws many visitors to the city in the summer. Recently there has been an increase in drama performances; however comedy, dance and music are all still heavily featured.
Often confused for the Edinburgh International Festival, The Fringe is actually a separate event, which runs simultaneously.
This is my third visit to this fest. And yes, we did plan ahead, with room for fillers on the hoof. The Guardian and The List provided a good springboard.
Friday Evening- 17/8
1.Sounds of The Gold Coast : Alabaster Box at The Just Festival St Johns, Corner Princes St
These four Ghananian men are a unique acappella –gospel style choir delivering Christian music dubbed Afropella. It is difficult to describe the mouth-made sounds of African rhythms and harmonies. The four of them say they each have an instrument in their bellies and mouths. It combines passionate singing, brief Ghananian dance steps and anecdotes that link African cultural symbols to the Christian message – Such a superb start to our Edfest.
2. The Island by Athol Fugard
“You stink of freedom and your stink drives me mad.”
Here is a play that was written and performed in South Africa in 1973 in response to the country’s racist apartheid laws. It’s based on the experiences of an actor who had been sent to Robben Island, the notorious prison where political dissidents, including Nelson Mandela, were held. Having visited the island, the sense of confinement resonated strongly.
The play starts with over ten minutes of mime. At the end of this period, you can understand the nature and pointlessness of the hard labour that these political prisoners were condemned to. In a brilliant mime, the two actors as John(Siya Mayola)and Winston (Luntu Masiza) give their all in depicting the end of yet another tiring working day. During this period, not a word is said as they would be risking their lives to speak. While the subject matter may seem very grim, the playwright ensures that humour is not too far away. In order to entertain themselves, the men relive happy experiences. Thus, they do their own internal video production of a cowboy movie and then John decides that it is time to call home and find out how the boys are doing at the bar. There are also more comical elements of the performance: They pretend to speak to loved ones using a mug as a phone; they make costumes from bits of scrap metal. When Winston resists frocking-up as Antigone with rope wigs and wooden bras heightens the humour. But the faceless establishment always finds a way to destroy any potential happiness. In this case, John has his sentence reduced; throwing into stark reality the fact that Winston is serving life.
The central action of ”The Island” is the effort by two prisoners to stage ”Antigone” as a form of protest in prison. The story of a grieving woman forbidden to give her brother an honourable burial, the play has always resonated with political dissidents, as has Antigone’s choice to sacrifice her life in a challenge to the unjust laws of Thebes. ”The Island” works on three different levels that heighten its universality: Antigone’s burial of her brother defies the repressive state, just as the characters in ”The Island” denounce apartheid by performing ”Antigone” for their guards and fellow inmates on Robben Island, whilst at the same time as those risking arrest by staging a play that challenged the government.
As John, the more optimistic, theatrically-inclined of the two, Mayola is a charming. He both teases and uplifts Winston with his words and suggestions, and to Mayola’s credit, and the play’s as well, his character is imbued with the sense of literary intelligence without any needless exposition. It’s certainly economic storytelling at its best. In contrast, Masiza presents Winston as the more reluctant and grave, yet intermittently boisterous prisoner. He has been imprisoned for life for the unworthy crime of simply burning his Apartheid-issued passbook in front of police. The play finally builds up in a modelled structure to the finale, which shows the parallels between the ancient Greece of Sophocles and the modern South Africa. A superb end to our first evening.
Saturday, 18 August.
3.“Meek” by Penelope Skinner at The Traverse 1, 10 Cambridge Street
“Meek” is a Kafkaesque new play with echoes of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, directed by Amy Hodge. We are in a dystopian society of Christian Fundamentalists where rule by the “disciples” has turned women into chattels of men, without rights of their own, unable to leave home without permission from their husbands or to walk unchaperoned. Here, in a prison cell, we meet Irene (Shvorne Marks), who has written and performed a love song which has been taken to be a blasphemous attack on the Holy Spirit. The play opens when the authorities want to make an example of her.
We experience cameo scenes of short visits to Irene’s cell from her lawyer, Gudrun (Amanda Wright) and her nervous, best friend Anna (Scarlett Brookes). Both are uniformly shrouded in smocks. We suspect Gudrun is secularist, especially when she alludes to Irene’s possible death sentence as a catalyst for revolution. As the song’s message spreads oversees to Europe, there is hope that Irene may have a better life. But two questions persist: Who betrayed her? Who reported her to the authorities? Marks, adeptly depicts the young woman’s anguish and confusion over her entrapment. She is soft, precise and utterly entrancing.
With the increased explosion of support for Irene, the play reminds us of the impact social media has on society. Whether that is the use of internet forums as a source of news and opinion or the constant monitoring of the prisoner’s likes versus dislikes as a means of gauging the public opinion. When this is attached to the possibility of a revolution, its real world application becomes very clear: reminiscent of the use of social media platform as an instigator during the Arab spring. And so Meek hits a lot of contemporary buttons, particularly exploring how personal expression is politicised, the mythology of the martyr, and the insidious adherence to principle by a misogynistic regime.
The supporting performances by Amanda Wright and Scarlet Brooks are also very strong and the connection between the all-female cast is palpable on stage. It’s an impressively all female production: writer, director, and all three actors are women, who make some pointed references occasionally to the fact that women’s transgressions are more violently punished than men’s.
The set is understated and meek (of course). The entire play is marked by a luminous crucifix carved into the background. “Meekness” is the boot of the patriarchy.
The geography, however, is confusing. Although the names sound Icelandic and the events seem reminiscent of news stories from the subcontinent, the 75-minute-long play is apparently translated from an imaginary, unknown Scandinavian language, delivered in English.
Disappointingly, the play should end with the sentence of Irene, but it forces a tidy explanatory ending, thereby the narrative loses focus and energy. You do come away, however thinking the play is worthy of a full length drama.
Nevertheless, the bonus was learning that this was produced by my favourite ” Headlong”, in association with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. This certainly ticked our “Not-tobe-missed” list.
4. “Narcissist in Mirror” at the Attic, Pleasance Courtyard, 60 Pleasance
“My mind has its own weather forecast”
Written and performed by Rosie Fleeshman
Using ’90s hit “You’re Gorgeous” by Babybird as its theme tune, we are catapulted into a feisty self-indulgent monologue of Narc, a young millennial in verse, occasionally lapsing into prose. Initially, she takes us through her home life. She is heard competing with her sister to be the “second favourite” after their brother (the men in the family get off very lightly, her father not mentioned at all), avoiding school sports, and manipulating boys by playing whatever role she imagines they expect from a girl with the help of some men in the audience. “My mind has its own weather forecast” colours her behaviour. The Fourth wall is used to chat to an imaginary psychiatrist as she lists the lovers she has seduced and abandoned in her shallow efforts to create self-esteem.
Drama school is a benchmark: meeting someone the protagonist didn’t have to manipulate by pretending to be someone else; then leaving to become an actor to find the world of acting wasn’t waiting to embrace her and give her lots of work. She tells about the embarrassment of telling people she is an actor and then being asked what she’d been in; and of the normality of domestic life; the break-up of a long-term relationship and her discovery of dating app Tinder, where her biggest frustration was the poor grammar of the people with whom she was matched. And curiously, concludes, she is probably a “shit feminist”.
The set is a theatre dressing room. Narc makes up at the mirror, although even that isn’t what it seems, as we find out at the end.
Many of the staged sections are very funny, well-observed and sharply-written, but it isn’t all laughs. There’s a moving piece on depression early on, and an intriguing and thoughtful poem that reflects on a relationship on which she walked out with fondness and admiration for what her partner did for her, but no regret.
We are left pondering that the title must be intended as ironic beyond the self-regarding egoist, because Rosie Fleeshman presents a surprisingly self-aware character. Fleeshman suggests someone trapped in a compulsive pattern of behaviour.
At first, I was convinced I was going to hate the show, but Fleeshman’s engaging performance is all embracing as she catches the eye of each one of us in the small acting space. By the end, our nameless heroine admits that she has no great moral crusade but wants to be an actor simply because she wants people to admire her. Whether or not this is Fleeshman’s own motivation, we will never know. All things considered, this remains a polished performance, a superbly acted and witty play.
- “Revenants” – King Dome, Pleasance Dome
“People hate us both, not for what we do but for who we are…an imagined infestation”
Having raced to this venue, in the first twenty minutes, I thought we were sitting down to a production which would leave me cold. Patrick Sandford’s production felt very old fashioned from the outset with a makeshift set. The playwright, Nicholla McAuliffe herself, takes on the role of the haughty Queen, playing her as much wiser and kinder than the cold, aloof figure, we are used to seeing in historical dramas. She is accompanied by Ernest Thesiger (Peter Straker), a closeted gay actor who had appeared in the film “Bride of Frankenstein” and Walcott (Kevin Moore), her Jamaican British chauffeur, orphaned by the Kingston earthquake of 1907. The three meet in an English birch wood to commemorate the death of the Russian Royal Family.
The conversation in the opening scene dryly gives us a potted history of the first half of the 20th Century, during which the Queen dwells on her regret that she and her husband, King George V, had refused requests to help the Romanovs to escape to exile following the 1917 Russian Revolution. The conversation drifts aimlessly to celebrated figures: Wilde, Coward, Mountbatten and the Queen’s own son, the late Duke of Kent who was thought to have been gay. Only now do we get a first hint of the direction in which the play is going. Suddenly, the calm is broken by a young rifle-bearing American soldier, GI Monk (Tok Stephen), who is defecting from the barracks of a nearby base. Monk educates Her Majesty on the racism that he has to endure both in the military and back home in the Deep South. Evidently, the quartet are defined and confined by age, race, gender, sexuality and class at a time when feminism didn’t exist, but racism and homophobia were rife. In contrast to ‘the Establishment’, two ‘men of colour’ have a very different outlook on the world ‘as it is’. To underline the contrast, Straker gives a rendition of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” which should have a profound impact but it lacked the gravelly, soulful delivery needed.
As these characters draw together they see the revenants of the past. Haunted by what they’ve done and worse, much worse, what they didn’t do, the group find common ground in betrayal, unclear as to who the betrayer is.
Decades later, others pick up the baton to challenge the status quo. However, for the people in the play, that knowledge is unavailable to them and no comfort against the respective ‘ghosts’ that haunt them. The play doesn’t work for me afor it needs some tidying up especially the ham-fisted, misjudged epilogue which assesses continuing discrimination through to 2018 was redundant and consciously contrived. Sadly, ninety minutes of my life which I won’t get back. On a positive note I hope we’ll see more of the young, Tok Stephen who is wasted in this drama of stereotypes.
6. “Chiffchaff” at The Jack Dome, Pleasance Dome, Bristo Place.
“Failure is not an option”
By no means perfect, this is a dizzy, satisfying hour of Elf Lyons’s hilarious, lisping delivery of fiscal policy and economics: somehow combining lucid explanations of fiscal policy, references to 18th-century economist Adam Smith, despite her insistence on keeping to her dad’s advice about executing an effective talk. Her father’s thoughts on both economics and his daughter’s personal finances surface throughout the show. Elf is no economist, although her father is : a respected fiscal strategist who was the former chief economic advisor to Boris Johnson when he was mayor of London, no less.
Elf begins by pulling on a glitzy dress (the wrong way round) and her dancing shoes; turns the crowd into her orchestra and even the most depressed economy into an uplifting, entertaining cabaret. She rewrites the lyrics of popular songs: Petula Clark’s Downtown becomes “Downturn”; Elf declares “Let’s Get Fiscal” (“Money talk”) followed by the most titillating version of “If I Were a Rich Man” you’re likely to see.
There are absurd moments aplenty in” ChiffChaff”, as it is to be expected. Quantitative Easing(Bank of England trying to stimulate the economy by making it easier for businesses to borrow money to avoid a financial crisis) is explained with the spurious link of using two sex dolls to represent influential theorists Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes. This involved my unsuspecting husband as the former trying to blow up a punctured doll. Oh, the dangers of sitting in the front row!
Elf is much more than a stand-up comedian. Expression, not profit, is her driving force. Being nominated for the Edinburgh Comedy Award last year is clearly not an open door to riches but good luck to her. The show is awkward but hey, we ran with its implicit charm and Lyons’s roving eyebrows. What’s not to love!
7.“Pin: Backstage” at the Pleasance 2, Pleasance Courtyard
A dash from the last venue to see Ben Ashenden and Alexander Owen was an unnecessary burst of energy. The conceit is that Pin play second fiddle to another double act, Philip and Robin. An hour of puerile humour in the Noises Off slapstick style is always guaranteed to isolate me amongst raucous audience laughter. I was glad to do my own “stand-up” and leave.
7. Michelle Christine: “50% Canadian, 100% Crazy” at the Tonic at Caves,
The premise of Christine’s show is simple: dressed as a Canadian ‘Mountie she recounts her journey to the Fringe from the moment just before she wanted to become a comedian. I am not sure how to categorise her performance as she doesn’t really fall into any of the normal comedic categories of stand-up comedy; instead, she just seems to go with the flow and mix and match them all. She blends a selection of anecdotes into her main narrative. True, she is a confident performer that can engage an audience but we sense she is still evolving into a fully-fledged, well-balanced comedian.
Sunday 19th August
8. “White” at Beside, Pleasance Courtyard
“My roots are buried in the ground. And they help me grow”
Koko Brown once joined a Black Lives Matter protest by mistake. She turned a corner and was swept up in the chanting and stamping of feet. But the politics of skin colour have always been personal to Brown. The complex, often divisive, heritage of being mixed-race, “as white as I am black”, is something she has had to navigate both in terms of who she knows herself to be, and other people’s expectations. White is a blend of gig-theatre and spoken word that follows Brown’s personal evolution. Over a tight, brilliantly constructed 45 minutes, she explores the ways in which her own relationship with her identity has changed the process of finding herself without having to pick a side in the face of a world that insists she choose between the inherited culture of her Jamaican father and Irish mother. It is often through others’ eyes that we come to acknowledge our own race, and Brown, through her phenomenal storytelling and use of repetition, shows us how she has been forced to pick a side.
Told through a series of songs and repeated phrases, Brown paints a picture of moments in her life that have contextualised her race. There are projections of influential black people across history, marches that have taken place, and movements that have passed successfully are a nod to the constant work that is being done to correct racism. Although there are some beautiful moments with silhouettes and shadows, the constant changing of lighting proves distracting and at times the show seems disjointed.
All things considered,”White” is an honest production; a joy to listen to and watch. Moreover, it’s not just reserved for people of colour, but also aims to target a white audience. It was refreshing though to see another mixed raced couple in the audience with their children. Brown encourages the audience to embrace her at the end and have a brief chat. I asked her if she had read Reni Edo Lodge’s “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race.” She has the book but does not wish to start reading it until after her current ‘run’ lest it might change the content of her show. And yes, it will evolve further.
9. “Blackthorn” by Charley Mills at the Roundabout, Summerhall
“People come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.”
The play’s name comes from the blackthorn plant or sloe, which is known for being incredibly difficult to uproot. For one week a year, however, its thorny branches burst into white blossom; its violet berries can be infused into gin. And so Blackthorn becomes an extended metaphor for the play. Very simply, Harry Egan and Charlotte Bate skilfully play two innocent children. They fall in love as teenagers. As the characters come of age, their beliefs and expectations change, so the urgent question becomes whether or not their bond can endure. They grow apart as she moves away to university and he stays behind to work. They meet up again at the wedding of a mutual friend. They row when she returns home from London. There is much that is left unsaid, then when spoken, becomes irreversible.
Each time she visits him, we see that the village too has changed and grown. What was farmland becomes new build flats, the neighbours have packed up and moved out because they couldn’t get work; a farmhouse becomes a boutique hotel for middle-class weekenders; a chic bistro instead of a rowdy local. It is a coming of age play as well as showing the collapse of country life.
At times, Miles’s writing is overly expositional and at others it is charming for a debut play. What became distracting were the movement interludes choreographed by Natasha Harrison which feel dated and unnecessary. Overall, worth seeing.
10. “Beggars Opera” – Kings Theatre
“What’s in it for me?”
I thought I had seen a version of this before at the National Theatre but must have been mistaken. I didn’t fully realise that John Gay’s 1728 work is not an opera. “The Beggar’s Opera” was devised to mock opera singers and opera audiences, the former mincing to endless arias in an unintelligible language, the latter affecting to enjoy it for snob points. To really get home the point, however, Gay’s show put criminal lowlifes on stage and suggests we might admire them even more than the heroes of the opera house. It’s not completely out of place today as he places a mirror to a corrupt political establishment and asks his audience to decide who the real villain is.
Director Robert Carsen’s version tries to put the piece into a contemporary context. Gay’s original depicted a world where men slept around and women were either passive objects designed to love the men or prostitutes. Carsen’s update uses exactly the same crooks with some terrible Brexit gags, as well as references to Theresa may and Thomas Markle. It’s the kind of organised crime, drug-smuggling environment where Ronnie and Reggie Kray might pop out of a dark alley at any moment. This would have been contemporary London 50 years ago. Now, the overriding misogyny grated.
The set, a grimy warehouse full of endless packing boxes, acts as a metaphor for a setting where everyone is for sale, venality rules all, and no characters have genuine affection for one another. For me the high energy choreography routines held the production together. Meeting up with a schoolfriend before leaving on the last day, she explained how she had been involved in rehearsing the dance sequences. Wow!
“The Beggar’s Opera” is enjoyable enough, but it is an exercise in style over substance. Although the libretto was poor, I did enjoy the musicians of Les Arts Florissants bring their period-instrument pedigree to the performance. Certainly, it’s evident that the cast are chosen more for their acting than their singing ability, but I don’t want to expand further. Enough said.
11. “My Left/Right Foot” at the Central, Assembly Roxy, 2 Roxburgh Place
“Who hasn’t won an Oscar playing the disabled?”
It is 30 years since Daniel Day-Lewis won the first of his three Academy awards for Best Actor for his role as Christy Brown in the biopic, “My Left Foot.”
Amy, ( Louise McCarthy) an ambitious young director with the Kirktoon Players, a small-town am-dram company, has noticed that they will earn extra points in the annual Scottish Amateur Dramatic Association competition if they become more inclusive. So they decide to stage a musical version of Christy Brown’s biography. It’s strangely yet delightfully irreverent, yet, so much fun.
Confidently staged inside Rebecca Hamilton’s carefully recreated 1970s community hall, the musical’s best quality is the way it includes surtitles, a visual describer (Gavin Whitworth, the musical director and pianist) and a signer (Natalie McDonald) not only in the action but also in the jokes.
The able-bodied team begin to face the difficulty of portraying a disabled man. So the central theme emerges: should a disabled character not be played by a disabled performer? Is it akin to someone blacking up to play Othello? Not just a question of taste, but to reflect the view of society of the age. How should disability on stage be represented?
What follows is a riot of plotting, scheming, splitting and love gone wrong, as the diffident disabled Chris (only in the room because bossy club secretary, Sheena gives him some odd jobs) (Matthew Duckett) who lives with Cerebral Palsy (CP) himself, finds himself becoming a central figure emerges as the actor with first-hand knowledge of disability the show needs. He challenges perceptions of disability from both cast and audience, not in a worthy or preachy way. Once again, we are tossed between cringing and screaming with laughter, at times wondering about whether or not it’s appropriate to do so.
A highlight for me in the production is Natalie MacDonald’s performance of ‘Nat’, an interpreter trying to learn how to sign for a play. MacDonald’s role is used to highlight the groups understanding (or lack of) of Chris’ life with CP, through very little speech. She uses the duality of addressing the audience directly whilst being a character in the show is genuinely funny, innovative and engaging. She is gifted with such articulate facial expressions that her meaning is crystal clear. McDonald herself both has a brilliant signing gag (literally) on the line “our patrons might not want it rammed down their throats” and a great moment when she constantly tries to pull the spotlight over to her.
Dawn Sievewright’s, Gillian becomes besotted with Chris and leads a movement class where she encourages everyone to get in touch with their ‘inner cripple’ to comic effect as each character earnestly writhes on the floor. Sheena (Gail Watson) is utterly compelling as the ‘do-gooder’ with a drive to out-perform Brenda Fricker as Christy Brown’s mother and Richard Conlon’s shy, Robin Williams-styled, Ian takes a massive leap through the ‘Drinking Song’ to grasp his moment in the father’s role, showcasing his voice to its best advantage.
I learned later that McCarthy had injured her foot in the previous performance and wasn’t able to do all of her dancing, however, it did bring a fantastic new dimension to the performance.
Written and directed by Robert Softley Gale, the musical rolls along at a whip-cracking pace. The original numbers, written by Scott Gilmour and Claire McKenzie, with some songs by Richard Thomas, provide some of the shows greatest moments, with lyrics that leave the audience unsure as to whether they should laugh or cringe. “Spasticity”, inspired by ‘Electricity’ from “Billy Elliot” is fabulously funny as Chris introduces what it feels like on the inside of CP. The absurdity of the musical numbers allows this show to go where none have gone before. For one who claims to hate musicals, this remained top of my list of “Must See” shows
12. “Midsummer” at the Hub Main Hall, Royal Mile / Johnstone Terrace
Scottish playwright David Greig’s romantic comedy begins in the heart of an outdoor wedding, gloriously designed by Cecile Tremolieres. You walk into the hall, thinking you’re about to watch a show that’s serene, genteel, and calm. There are trestle tables with faux white wooden chairs, covered in pretty linen tablecloths and drapes. On a long bridal table, are flowers in beautiful arrangements with artfully placed around perfect pyramids of champagne flutes. There are fairy lights strung above our heads, and there’s luscious green grass under our feet. The wedding band is playing, the audience is lightly chatting. When this is stripped away, literally, (Seems a pointless exercise!) the tables beneath become the props supporting the action: the hotel beds, the Princes Street Garden shelters, the nightclubs where Bob and Helena drown their unhappiness in a sea of alcohol. It is Edinburgh, set in familiar locations around the city from The Meadows and Princes Street Gardens to the Conan Doyle bar.
Henry Pettigrew and Sarah Higgins play Bob and Helena, a petty criminal and lawyer respectively, who have a drunken one-night stand. Bob and Helena share the storytelling with their older counterparts, played by Eileen Nicholas and Benny Young. As the title and Helena’s name suggests, it is a show about magic and romance, with allusions, perhaps, to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Over a mad midsummer weekend, the pair meet and find a connection that surprises them both, finding solace in each other’s company as Helena tackles her sister’s wedding and Bob dodges his criminal underworld colleagues. Their movement around the Hub Main Hall space is frenetic; the cast run up and down ladders, around the back of the space, and tie themselves into literal knots, and so the audience’s eyes constantly chase them.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this production. I admired the complexity of direction but the production was gratuitous, both in set design and performance. As Disraeli once said, “there is moderation even in excess”.
13. Damian Clark at the Billiard Room, Guilded Balloon Teviot,