Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: Mess

Anorexia is as much about comfort as it is about control - it can envelop like an eiderdown. This new show by Caroline Horton - winner of The Stage award for Best Solo Show in 2010 - doesn't tiptoe around the subject of eating disorders, nor is it overly worthy in tone. Drawing on her own personal experiences, Horton has created something that is moving and insightful but also full of humour and warmth.

The production tells the story of Josephine's illness through a meta-theatrical lens; a knowing awkwardness pervades, there are a lot of sidelong glances and. sometimes the wrong things are said, the line overstepped. The production can perhaps be justifiably accused of an excess of whimsy but this is part of the chosen language of the piece and it works in context.

Josephine's anorexia is represented by a cloud-like duvet and a pink parasol, a soothing place to which one can retreat. Hannah Boyde's Boris is in some ways the emotional core of the play, pleading with her friend to eat, to seek help, sharing in Josephine's small victories, her face beaming while Horton sits above the stage, a remote presence, her chin held aloft in quiet pride and defiance.

Reviewed for The Stage

Edinburgh 2012: One Hour Only

Sabrina Mahfouz’s new two-hander – part of the Old Vic, New Voices season – takes the form of an encounter between AJ and Marley, client and sex worker in an ‘upmarket’ east London brothel. It’s her first day and his first time. They are both nervous and unsure of their roles, of the rules of engagement, the exact nature of the parts they should be playing during their allotted, pre-paid hour.

Her façade cracks first; she drops the cod Polish accent along with her professional mask and this throws him completely off track. He’s resentful at first, affronted; suddenly the dynamic has shifted and they are no longer participants in a process of transaction, but two people from the same part of London with a similar sense of drive and ambitions to make something more of their lives. She, it transpires, is a student of forensic biology, with a textbook tucked under her pillow; he, in turn, hopes to leave behind his job driving taxis to train as a structural engineer. Once they have relaxed a little, she Sherlocks him, dissecting his background from a few scattered clues; he asks why a woman of her evident smarts would choose to do a job like this, with her life, with her body. But her response, that the money’s good and it’s a way of guaranteeing her financial independence, of never having to rely on any one man, never quite rings true.

In the most striking image, Marley stands astride AJ in her cheap nylon robe, making him the corpse in her CSI dream, diagnosing the cause of his death and explaining the likely outcome of the police investigation. Then they switch, and the aspirant engineer makes a bridge of her body, resting her between two chairs, with the bed unused and almost – but never completely – forgotten in the background. In this way they use each other’s bodies to act out their fantasies, but instead of it being an erotic act, it’s one of transportation, lifting them out and way from this seedy and harshly-lit room.

Mahfouz’s previous piece, her solo show, Dry Ice, was set in the world of strip clubs. But while it was a rounded piece of writing, there was this underlying sense that such a way of life would sap you eventually, that over time it would drain the light out of your eyes and leave you hollow. Here she presents what can only be described as a best case scenario: Marley gives the impression of being in control – she’s not been trafficked, she’s not an addict, she’s doing this of her own volition – while AJ treats her with consideration, listening to her dreams and sharing his; the whole encounter it even transpires was not even his idea, but a 21st birthday gift from his mates.

Not every play about the sex trade has to be as devastating as Road Kill; it’s not essential you walk away feeling utterly repulsed by people’s ability to treat other people as meat, as holes to be filled, and it’s plausible that there are times when sex workers end up counselling and consoling their clients, providing services other than those purely physical; all of those things are true and yet the gentleness of tone is problematic. At most Mahfouz suggests that Marley’s reasoning is faulty and that she may come to regret her choice, though the moment where AJ playacts being the victim of strangulation, the cause of death as Marley point out of far more women than men, causes some unsettling ripples. The idea that these two characters might ever stop talking and start fucking is off the table from a fairly early point in the play and this robs the set-up of much in the way of dramatic tension. As amiably played as the piece is – by Nadia Clifford and Faraz Ayub - the end result is curiously timid.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, August 24, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: Thread

Joan and Izzy have been friends for decades, waltzing together in a slow and circular dance as the years pass and age takes its toll. Joan marries while Izzy remains single, childless, seemingly content, but the connection between them remains there, as delicate yet unshakeable as a cobweb.

Produced by Nutshell, the company behind last year’s Allotment, this is an ostensibly site-specific work, staged in a harshly lit church function room with trestle tables arrayed around the walls and bunting strung about the place. The audience are led along a damp Edinburgh back alley, down a flight of steps and made to participate in a beetle drive. The first few minutes are a frenzy of dice rolling and silliness, which is at odds with the melancholic tone of what follows.

This is one of several pieces on the Fringe this year about watching the person you love slip slowly and achingly from your grasp. Jules Horne’s play is gently moving rather than wrenching, it doesn’t hit you in the pit of your belly, but it is both touching and elegant in its sketching of the relationship both between the two women and with Joan’s husband, William. He feels that Izzy is too close to Joan and he alternates between resenting her presence and acknowledging her importance in his wife’s life. There are layers of understanding, spoken and unspoken, between all three and it is these that the writing draws out, drifting back and forwards from the past to the present in a lapping, wave-like way. The performers make no attempt to play older than their years. They present these character as they were at the moment which tied them all together, in their bright 1950s dresses, the tangle of their future ahead of them.

Joan’s decline is also subtly handled. She starts to forget things – names, words, the reason she went into a room – while other moments remain fixed in her mind like a photograph. A wheelchair sits at one side of the room, but it is sparingly used and Kate Nelson’s production resists the urge to pile on the pathos. Yet in Clair Dargo’s eyes it is possible to see the awful blossoming realisation that what’s happening to Joan is far more than just everyday forgetfulness. Mary Gapinski and Stephen Docherty are similarly measured in their performances, but it’s Dargo’s fear and frustration that makes the deepest impression.

Despite the choice of venue, this is in many ways a conventional traverse staging; the space is not that imaginatively used, though the limited capacity, the sheer physical proximity to the cast, means you can see every shadow of confusion play across Dargo’s face and every flash of longing in Gapinski’s eyes. The participatory element is also abandoned after the first few minutes and the harshness of the lighting bleaches everything. And just as Horne starts to sheds light on the depth of connection between the three, the piece ends abruptly, like a lid being closed on a music box.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: Waiting for Stanley

A woman waits hopefully on a railway platform for her husband to appear. Her wait is a long one. A clock ticks, the station empties and still he doesn’t come. But her face remains hopeful, her optimistic smile holding firm beneath her clown’s nose.

Told mainly through mime, Leela Bunce’s solo show is a poignant evocation of life on the Home Front during the Second World War. Based on interviews with those who lived through it, her approach is one of collage; the show takes the form of a lace of short scenes which together tell of the experiences of the women left behind.

The stagecraft is a joy. A string of cut-out paper children are slowly concertinaed out of view as they are evacuated from their homes. A clothes line full of washing is backlit to reveal a city in flames, bombs raining from the sky. A Pathé newsreel plays out across the backcloth, urging women to join the workforce. There are numerous vintage suitcases strewn around the set and in these become accordions, typewriters, kitchen tables; one of them, when opened, reveals a tiny puppet Stanley writing home and requesting fresh socks. In the most inventive sequence of all, a lump of dough – mixed together from what scant ingredients are still available – is turned first into a wailing baby, before slowly being moulded into the distinctive jowls of Churchill in full oratorical flow.

Bunce (aka Audacity Chutzpah) is a hugely appealing performer, simultaneously graceful and goofy in her movements, with a deliciously expressive face. She has a puppyish quality, ever eager for applause, whether leading the audience in a rousing rendition of ‘Daisy, Daisy’ or riding an invisible motorcycle across a shadow landscape.

In terms of subject matter and the method of presentation there are obvious parallels with Caroline Horton’s utterly captivating You’re Not Like The Other Girls Chrissy – the inventive use of suitcases is an obvious point of comparison – though Bunce’s act is almost entirely wordless. Whereas Chrissy’s personality filled the room, Bunce’s war-wife is more of an everywoman, a vivid and charming on-stage presence and yet never quite a character in her own right.

There’s been some discussion across the course of the festival (here and here) about the compatibility of a certain whimsical Fringe aesthetic with stories drawn from the two world wars, about the mingling of fairy lights and goblin quests with the foul mud of the trenches and the monstrous anger of the guns, and how appropriate that is as artistic response.

But while Bunce’s clowning teeters on the twee at times, it is also in many ways entirely fitting to the subject at hand, capturing something of the resilience of those forced to continue living while the men they love were slaughtered in far off fields. A raised chin, a clown nose and a willingness to keep laughing are as good a shield as any in the face of such devastation.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: Appointment with the Wicker Man

The basic premise is golden, unbeatable. A Scottish am-dram society, the Loch Parry Players, are staging a version of the Wicker Man and have been obliged to draft in a professional actor from the mainland to replace their leading man, Roger Morgan, who has gone missing in mysterious circumstances. As meta-theatrical frameworks go, you couldn’t ask for a richer one. It quivers with potential. There are so many ways they could take it. But the creative team behind this update of Robin Hardy’s 1973 folk horror classic never really fulfil that promise.

Clearly intended as a loving homage from a pair of writers, Greg Hemphill and Donald McLeary, who are both self-confessed Wicker Man obsessives, it falls down because the framing narrative, the production-within-the-production, is so broad in tone. There’s an initially amusing juxtaposition between the worlds of amateur and professional theatre, but the Loch Parry players themselves are cut from the roughest cloth: there’s a randy wardrobe mistress, Morag, her camp-as-Christmas, purple Lycra-clad husband, Callum, and the permanently drugged-up technician, Fran. Only Rory, the Glaswegian television actor and stand-in for Officer Howie – played by Sean Biggerstaff (a name ripe for Restoration comedy if there ever was one) – doesn’t eat the scenery and chase it down with a pint of Irn Bru. While the contrast is clearly intentional and works within the framework of the production it doesn’t stop it grating, just as inserting a big Broadway-style number in at the beginning and then commenting on its crassness and inappropriateness doesn’t entirely excuse it.

Some of the references are admittedly delicious. There is a whole section devoted to the moment where Lord Summerisle sends a boy up to Willow’s bedroom to be ‘sacrificed to Aphrodite’ complete with the snail-mating sequence, which was cut from the original theatrical release. May Morrison’s sweet shop, with its phallic candies and pagan jelly tots, is also referenced though much to Rory’s frustration the Loch Parry version is only stocked with out-of-date Curly Wurlies

There are some lovely throw-away lines too: one character gushes about being a huge fan of Nicholas Cage when asked if she’s ever actually seen the film, somebody else mentions The Equalizer. They save the famous seduction sequence to the end. In the film this was a writhing, primal explosion of a scene performed to Paul Giovanni’s sensuous Willow’s Song (most of the film’s original music is recreated here, another small pleasure of the production), with Britt Ekland slapping the adjoining tavern wall with her palms while the virginal Edward Woodward sweated, cowered and all but combusted in his bed. Ekland memorably required a body-double for certain shots; here the scene is replicated with Sally Reid’s Marie wearing a comedy nude suit complete with bean-bag tits and a Mick Hucknall wig affixed to her pubic triangle. So much of the humour comes down to bums and boobs, which is fine in and of itself, but it also means that the epic pile up of revelations about the various characters’ emotional lives that fills the last ten minutes has zero value.

What really riles is the fact that there are a couple of genuinely unnerving moments scattered throughout Vicky Featherstone’s production, a couple of skin-tingling instances where the performers creep around the stage in animal masks and an air of the sinister pervades. But these moments are constantly undercut by its insistence on silliness when conversely the production is at its strongest when it plays things comparatively straight, when it allows its characters to be characters rather than ‘types.’

While you have to admire a production that inserts one of Woodward’s anguished cries to his Christ into its big musical finale, the image that lingers is not of a burning effigy – though all credit to designer Chloe Lamford for creating an impressive Wicker Man/Iron Giant hybrid for the last scenes – but of this glorious gift an idea being so poorly realised, of all that potential going up in smoke.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: Elephant Man

You hear him first. The wheezing. The rasping. A salivary sound; like Darth Vader gargling, wet and incessant. It burrows into you – it’s impossible to tune out.

Ushered into the room by a nurse in a high-necked dress, the audience are asked not to let their faces betray their emotions, to mask any terror or disgust they might feel.

A bright white cube stands at the centre of the stage through the translucent skin of which a contorted shadow can be seen, hunched over, head down. Here we have the source of this unnerving respiratory rattle: Joseph Merrick, resident of the London Hospital, a long-term patient of Dr Frederick Treves – and our host.

Benoit Hattet, as is often the case with stage adaptations of Merrick’s life story, plays the part without prosthetics of any kind, using his body to suggest the extent of the man’s deformities. One arm hangs heavy at his side, one leg is awkwardly twisted, and the heel of his bare foot never touches the ground. He’s Verbal Kint with a dove grey suit and a melancholy gentlemanly air, his lip curled, his eraser head cocked to one side, his every utterance requiring considerable effort. It’s an incredible feat of physicality; without entirely pretzeling his body, Hattet conveys the mess of Merrick’s physical condition. There are times when it is almost uncomfortable to watch and his bubbling breath – which he maintains throughout – is particularly difficult to listen to. When he finally uncoils at the end, it’s hard not to feel your own shoulders un-tense in sympathy.

The relationship between Merrick and Isabelle Bouvrain, as his nurse, is a necessarily complex one: she is part carer, part keeper. She invites the audience to watch Merrick, to stare, to drink their fill, but then sets out the terms for their doing so; she is positively maternal at moments, tender and soft-eyed, but more often than not she is stern, a chilly school mistress, correcting his speech and gently chastising him for alarming the ladies in the audience. On one hand she is inattentive – neglecting to hand him his teacup in a way that he can usefully drink from it – but then she readies herself to give him one of his several daily baths, an act of incredible intimacy.

Merrick spent so much of his life on display; having escaped the workhouse by joining a travelling show and inviting the public to gawp for a price, he was then the subject of medical examination and scrutiny, his body forever being prodded and measured and assessed. The Lynchian light box of a set – a sterile, white space, harshly strip-lit and furnished with a spindly metal cot – ensures that Merrick’s status as an exhibit is never in doubt; well over a century after his death at the age of 27, he remains an object of fascination; this play is of course part of that process, and it is not even the only Elephant Man at this year’s Fringe.

While the production contains a good deal of biographical detail (though admittedly nothing that couldn’t be cribbed from Wikipedia) – including the golden moment where Merrick’s dream of being able to visit the theatre at Drury Lane comes true – the writing is in many ways secondary to Hattet’s act of bodily transformation and the way the piece as a whole acts as a meditation on repulsion, attraction, and the delicate interplay between the two: the twin urges to look and to look away.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: After The Rainfall

Every few years some rare collision of meteorological factors will result in a red rain of Saharan dust clogging the exhaust pipes of cars in Wrexham and powdering suburban rooftops in Surrey. In this way particles of African sand, picked up and lifted and caught on the current, can find themselves spread across the world like a global cloak, alighting on the shoulders of those who have never and will never set foot in the desert.

It is these webs of connection, this process of dissemination – by wind, by wire, by digital signal, by the touch of hand or a soft word whispered into an ear – that Curious Directive, the company behind last year’s acclaimed Your Last Breath, are attempting to illustrate here in their striated and intricate production.

A young Egyptian woman in a cherry red head-scarf makes a pilgrimage from Cairo to London, visiting the major European museums en route as a way of staying connected to the brother she lost in Tahir Square. In one of several parallel narrative strands, a British government official in Egypt in the 1950s is on a covert fact-finding mission when his plane goes down in the desert. Hopping through time once more, this time to the 1980s, a young art student makes a piece of sculpture as a way of commemorating a Cumbrian mining accident in which she too lost a brother. Leaping forwards to 2022 an academic outlines the thesis of his new book, relating the viral spread of ideas around the world with the way that ants communicate.

In terms of stagecraft alone, After the Rainfall is a beautiful thing to behold. It is immaculate in its use of movement, shifting between its various distinct worlds and time periods with remarkable ease. No gesture is without purpose, no action superfluous. The performers are whipped and buffeted by desert winds, they are penned in on London tube trains; they balance precariously on chairs as they create their own internal flashback structure, a series of echoes of echoes.

The company fling question after question at the audience: about the aftermath of Empire, about the cultural and emotional significance of ancient artefacts, about the many disparate ways in which people communicate and connect with one another. The piece as a whole is as densely lettered as the Rosetta Stone, which plays a pivotal part in the narrative, while images captured on Facebook and camera phone are another recurring motif. The production seems genuinely excited about the evolution of communication technology, the rapidity with which ideas can be spread, the way a single image can leap across the planet like a spark through arid grass.

There’s an awful lot to unpick here and some of the strands are given more space to breathe – to exhale and expand – than others, meaning that some of the characters remain sketches – elegant and artfully drawn, but sketches all the same. There are times it feels as if there are several separate plays here, layered on top of one another, stacked like so much Edinburgh city silt, one world piled upon the one beneath. But throughout it all, the time-shifts and the occasional thematic overload, Rashida – the Egyptian girl played with great grace by Colette Tchantcho – remains a calm, cool centre amidst the sandstorm.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, August 17, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: Camille Claudel

Her fingers curl around the cotton of her skirts as she kicks her heels and stamps her feet. She laughs: a hot, hard sound. She moulds the air with her hands furiously, kneading, shaping, sculpting. Fever-quick and restless, she roams around the room.

Having previously played Frida Kahlo, the French-Brazilian performer Gaël Le Cornec turns her attention to Camille Claudel, who despite being a talented sculptor in her own right, will forever be tied in most minds to Rodin, for whom she was a muse, a model and eventually a lover, and to the fact that Claudel’s emotional energy, her volatility, her inner unchecked burning, led to her being confined to the lunatic asylum at Montfavet by her family, where she was to remain until her death. Even though her physicians eventually came to believe she was fit for release, she was left there to fester for thirty years, only very rarely receiving visitors.

Le Cornec attempts to convey something of the spirit of Claudel rather than just offering up a by-numbers biography. So she stamps and swishes her skirts and roars with laughter, leading the audience in song, conveying the lust and danger of her relationship with her former mentor coupled with her own potent artistic vision, her hunger for recognition on her own terms. This initial flaring, solar and searing, is slowly eroded as her drinking intensifies, her behaviour becomes more erratic and the whispers start, the ugly conspiratorial talk that will eventually see her labelled a hysteric and locked away by her mother and her steely diplomat brother, Paul Claudel. Le Cornec’s actions become more frantic and exaggerated as she deteriorates, sinking into the absinthe bottle and the arms of a succession of inappropriate men, eventually forced to self-administer an abortion, the blood-red bloomers she wears under her skirts taking on an appalling new significance.

While on the one hand the appeal of these exercises in resurrection is obvious – releasing these eclipsed women from their attics, their garrets, and the bone-cold loneliness of the asylum, and making them live and laugh – they’ve also become something of a Fringe genre with their own particular codes, too few of which are subverted here. There’s a danger of simply dropping these women into new but just as restrictive boxes, something this production does not entirely avoid.

Le Cornec’s performance, however, is just knowing enough to transcend some of the clichés inherent in the material: it’s rich and warm and incredibly connected with its audience; she is unafraid to hold your gaze, to laugh at herself. There are times where it’s just possible to scent the Belle Epoch in this drabbest of Pleasance Portakabins, at other times the incessant swishing of skirts makes Le Cornec resemble a child let loose in her mother’s dress-up box.

While the soft-hearted part of me warmed to Le Cornec’s epilogue, her imaging of Claudel finding eternal release in a whirl of parasols and sunshine and tender caresses, this all felt a little too wishful and naïve; I found the rainbow cascade of Claudel’s unread letters, her decades of one-sided correspondence, that provided the more wrenching image, that stirred the blood and left a tang of anger and sadness in the air at the sheer fucking waste of talent and years.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: Boris and Sergey's Vaudevillian Adventure

Boris and Sergey are a pair of foot-high face-less leather bunraku-style puppets with dubious morals; a couple of bickering Balkan tricksters, one the bastard-son-of-a-basket-ball, the other a kind of fuzzy-bellied mutant muppet baby, who perform a furious hour-long set on top of a green baize table.

Whereas Blind Summit’s recent exercise in table-top puppetry had an appealing simplicity and a mildly existential air, this show by Flabbergast Theatre is an altogether wilder and more raucous proposition. What begins as a familiar albeit puppet-centric late-night Fringe show, complete with plenty of dick jokes and a participatory puppet poker session, grows more and more ambitious by the minute: there are flashbacks, an action sequence, a Kate Bush number, a brief body swap episode and one of the most dizzyingly inventive endings of any show I’ve seen this year.

For as well as being wickedly funny it’s also an exquisite piece of six person puppetry. Each character takes three people to operate and the performers are required to work in perfect harmony, even matching their breathing to that of their fellow puppeteers. While the audience are always aware of their presence, hovering over their puppet charges like black-clad watchful gods, the two brothers also exist as characters in their own right. They have a brilliantly convincing rapport, affectionate yet volatile, one wearily tolerant of the other’s stupidity.

What makes it even more impressive is the level of improvisation that, by necessity is folded into the act. The company were fortunate on this occasion, picking two guys for the poker sequence who were sober enough to carry out instructions (unlike the woman sitting beside me, whose frequent boisterous whoops and interjection had very little bearing on what was happening on stage) and also delivered their given lines in honeyed Louisiana accents. But it’s fairly clear that the puppeteers are capable of dealing with any heckles and other late night Fringe randomness that might be hurled their way without breaking their flow. While they made it look seamless, it’s clearly a hugely physically demanding task, with one performer per puppet required to crouch on the floor at all times and the lead performers’ sweat raining down onto the green of the table top.

Eventually it all gets a bit meta as the puppets start to spar with their limb-wranglers – Boris learning the hard way that calling the person who controls your arms a cunt is a sure-fire road to puppet paralysis. It would be fair to say the action sequences while inventive are probably overlong and that, as the puppets themselves point out, there’s only one plot point to speak of, but this all pales beside their wonderfully Faustian finish, Drag Me to Hell with a commedia dell’arte flourish, the dark night rising up to claim their souls.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: Machines for Living

Brutalism is such a loaded word. Though it derives from the French term for “raw concrete”, it has come to be a byword for the kind of post-war architecture that many perceive as hostile: buildings that bullishly disregard their surroundings, great grey blocky beasts that sully the skyline and trample people beneath their giant feet.

Let Slip’s playful, sidelong, slightly cartoonish show is as much about the erosion of an ideal as anything else. The title is drawn for Le Corbusier’s Towards an Architecture in which he describes his vision of a beautifully ordered world. To him, the ‘house-machine’, the mass-production house, was “healthy (and morally so too) and beautiful in the same way that the working tools and instruments which accompany our existence are beautiful.” At the Barbican’s 2009 Le Corbusier exhibition, a diagram showed his vision of the ideal urban layout as a series of interconnected hubs each radiating towards the other, rather than a clotted central knot – and it was beautiful.

The Lecoq-trained company are interested in how the precision of his vision for ‘healthy’ houses and his passion for primary forms – the cube, the cylinder, the cone – glinting smoothly in the sun, came to be diluted over time. Roger and Wendy, a pair of young, newly married architects begin with a dream, to create ‘homes fit for heroes’, towers of gleaming concrete inside which every living space is uniform and blissfully efficient. But gradually this dream is chipped away. Cheaper materials are used; window size is reduced, again for reasons of cost; despite Wendy’s reservations, Roger strives to create buildings that are taller and denser for reasons of drama rather than social need.

Once the buildings are completed it soon becomes clear that there are problems with maintenance, damp seeps in and the sheen wears off. The inhabitants also have a habit of being wilful and all too human, of failing to lead efficient, tidy lives within their efficient, tidy apartments; Roger’s ‘friendly’ sky-walks become forbidding places. In the heightened language of the production, the idea of ‘community’ is personified as a beaming, puppyish creature who reflects her surroundings, becoming more feral and aggressive as the tower blocks rise around her. It’s a knowing device, but it syncs with the company’s chosen heightened style. The spirit of Le Corbusier is played as a lip-licking Bond villain while the failure of the brutalist project is starkly illustrated by the body of a woman being dragged across the stage, a trussed tiny figure who, we are told, died alone and unnoticed in her shiny futurist flat.

Christina Hardinge’s simple but striking black-and-white design adds to the production’s Fritz Lang meets Austin Powers aesthetic (there’s a fair bit of ‘groovy’ dancing) and while the company eventually end up oversimplifying the argument about these vertical cities and their failings, the force with which they hurl themselves at their complex subject matter and the idiosyncratic but cohesive world they create is undeniably impressive.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, August 13, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: My Robot Heart

The Hugvie, a kind of Japanese robot, is a faceless and sexless monopedal blob which looks alarmingly like a half-chewed jelly baby. Pillow-like and primary-coloured, it has been designed to administer hugs to its owners. When attached to a mobile phone, the robot is able to replicate a caller’s tone through vibration, taking a verbal experience and making it physical. Its little mutant jelly baby arms quiver while its owners caress it, placid as cats. But this is just the tip of things. Research is already underway – according to poet and performer Molly Naylor – to create the robot that can fall in love, or to at least replicate the behaviour of someone in love: artificial intelligence giving rise to artificial emotion.

A prototype model has already been created though this had to be shelved because its behaviour grew erratic. As opening images go this is a potent one: love as emotional malfunction, a case of faulty wiring, a 404 service error of the soul. Love is a chemical process, a computer programme with a fixed end point, Naylor explains, and she is interested in how to sustain a relationship beyond that point Inspired by late- night reading about heart-sore robots and having recently split from a partner at an age when most of her peers were tying the knot, Naylor started to write stories, the results of which form the central part of her show. Robots are sadly noticeable by their absence from this point forwards. While she uses this image as a jumping off point, the waters she lands in are only waist-high.

Naylor interweaves a couple of narrative strands. A woman, Eliza, has a pre-wedding freak out and runs away to consider whether she’s making the right decision. Meanwhile her terminally ill father Harry is having a freak out of his own over the prospect of making a speech at the wedding. Naylor’s stories are accompanied by two-girl group The Middle Ones, who sit pixie-like at the side of the stage, singing sweetly if winsomely. But while some attempt has been made to integrate them into the piece and there’s some amusing banter about their lack of acting ability, their presence is frustratingly underutilised.

Naylor’s material at times has the feel of gentle observational stand-up – what the kind of wardrobe you own says about where you are in your life emotionally., that kind of thing – but the story meanders and drifts and back-steps and never really tells you anything about love or fear. Naylor has grown in confidence as a performer since her last show, Every Time I Get Blown Up I Think of You, which saw her interrogating her response to being caught up in the 7/7 attacks. But both her material and the still fairly static way in which it is presented feel in need of more development. Given all the potential embedded in that first image, the robot obeying its programming by clinging on to the person it thinks it wants, unwilling to ever let go, the stories that follow are decidedly tepid. In this case the robot’s blood runs hotter.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: Grit

Cardboard citizens wave cardboard placards of protest on the streets of a cardboard city. A series of ominous cardboard tanks appear and a rebellion is turned to dust. This is one of several memorable images in Tortoise in a Nutshell’s potent puppet theatre show, a series of vignettes about children and armed conflict.

A framing device shows a young woman – a flame-haired puppet in a flannel shirt – sorting through the possessions of her war photographer father. This leads in to a series of snapshots of conflict zones, from Sarajevo to Syria: black and white sketches, like cells from a graphic novel, twisting across the stage, captured and fixed into place. There’s more than a touch of Ari Folman’s animated documentary Waltz with Bashir to this imagery, the interplay between the stark black lines and the things they depict.

A sequence in which a tiny puppet child plays games in a sandpit, laughing as he makes sand castles with a miniature bucket while all the time the sound of gunfire rings out in the background, is the closest it gets to overt sentiment. Elsewhere the piece is more intricate and original in the stories it tells. A one-time child soldier for the Khmer Rouge is shown making amends for his past by digging up land-mines that he once laid and founding an orphanage. This is all depicted through shadow puppetry, the images appearing on a series of screens: a hand, a boot, a mine concealed in the long grass.

For the most part the three performers are silent and what dialogue we hear is pre-recorded. The combination of these voices and the score is incredibly effective, adding to the evocative nature of the piece. The war photographer speaks to his daughter from various far off places, wishing he could be home with her but feeling the need to stay put and to record the things he sees.

Not everything works: a sequence in which two of the performers play child-like war games, wielding invisible weapons and spurting invisible blood, is perhaps too obvious a response to the subject matter, especially given the subtlety of some of the other material. As with many devised pieces of this kind, there are issues with structural clarity, but in terms of technical accomplishment and imaginative power, it’s an impressive achievement

Reviewed for Exeunt

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: Chapel Street

Luke Barnes' punchy, pacey two-hander - part of the Old Vic, New Voices new writing programme - is drenched in booze. It's beer-breathed and sweaty with it, slurring and fuzzy-tongued, as it explores a night of binge-drinking from two separate points of view.

Joe is an amiable twenty-something lad who still lives with his mum and seems accepting of a life of odd jobs and nights on the lash. Kirsty is a teenager, not without ambition, who goes on a bender to celebrate a friend's birthday, scoring some alcohol and hitting the town. The two stories are told as independent, cross-cutting monologues, which only collide towards the end. Both performers give convincing, driven performances, becoming increasingly more inebriated as the play progresses, no easy thing to convey.

Cary Crankson's Joe turns up the chat and Ria Zmitrowicz's Kirsty, motor-mouthed from the start, becomes even more voluble. The growing on-stage chaos of Cheryl Gallagher's production captures the trajectory of their epically messy night -“ microphone stands tumble to the ground, shaving foam spatters the floor and the actors end up skidding in their own spillings. But beneath the excess of their binge, the play has something to say about what it is to be stuck socially and economically, to see your ambitions slowly eroded, to see what hope you had slip slowly away.

Reviewed for The Stage.

Edinburgh 2012: Comedian Dies in the Middle of a Joke

While it would be true to say Ross Sutherland's new show fuses interactive theatre with stand-up comedy, it does much more than that: at times it's like a human feedback loop, an iterative narrative given breath, at others it's more of a Sisyphean party game, an endless session of musical chairs with bad wigs and polyester shirts.

The premise is this: during a gig at London comedy club in the mid-1980s the comedian Joe 'Pop' Pooley met his end. His jokes died and then he did. Sutherland, acting as compere, requests that his audience help him to recreate the last five minutes of Joe's life. Every person is made to play their part. Some get to heckle at chosen moments, while others actually get a chance to play the comedian, reading their lines from an autocue.

At the end of each scene, everyone shifts seats and adopts a new role, the reset button is hit and things begin again. While Joe's lines never change, the audience's responses develop with each repetition. The success of this depends very much on how well people embrace the concept and in the main they take to it. The beauty of the piece lies in the variation and anticipation, the growing awareness that you can shape things - though, of course, as in life, the final outcome is inevitable.

Reviewed for The Stage.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: Blink at the Traverse Theatre

Phil Porter’s Blink belongs to a niche but recognisable sub-genre: that of the bitter-sweet, self-consciously quirky, not-quite love story. Which means that while the play includes some ‘rom’ and a fair bit of ‘com’, there’s also consensual stalking, bereavement, a girl in a coma and a fox with the mange.

Both Jonah and Sophie have had sheltered childhoods – he grew up as part of a rural religious community, she grew up on the Isle of Man – both lost a parent to cancer and are still dealing with the impact of that loss, both are now living alone in London, specks in a swarming city.

Sophie in particular worries that she may actually be disappearing, that this growing fir-cone feeling inside of her may be spreading and that people will soon no longer be able to see her. So by means of a camera and video monitor she invites Jonah – who lives in the flat below – to watch her, and in doing so she makes herself visible once more. Jonah meanwhile is the type of young man who takes this unusual offering in his stride: in fact it fills a need in him; he’s content to observe her from a distance, to share small everyday moments at a degree of remove. But as he their ‘relationship’ grows more intense and he starts to shadow her in public, to encroach on her space, he is in danger of breaching their unspoken pact.

The strength of Porter’s writing lies in its use of detail, its attention to specifics and its use of tonal juxtaposition. Joe Murphy’s immensely likeable yet shaded production benefits from two highly complementary performances from Harry McEntire and Rosie Wyatt in roles that seem tailored to their individual strengths as performers. With his neatly parted, Ken doll hair and his ever-hopeful, eager expression, McEntire conveys an aching sense of being slightly out of step with other people. His obsessive tendencies are made to seem very much part of the fabric of his character and he manages to make the kind of behaviour that might be alarming in others feel, if not exactly endearing, than an understandable response to complex emotional terrain. Wyatt in many ways has the slightly harder job: her character’s idiosyncrasies are much subtler, but her considerable charm as a performer – as witnessed in Jack Thorne’s Bunny, another nabokov production – means that she is never outshone.

In the beginning they each occupy their separate space on the moss-green, autumnal stage, seated at orderly metal desks, looking out at the audience as they relate their twin stories rather than at each other. The opening passages of the play are in part reminiscent of Daniel Kitson’s It’s Only Right Now Until It’s Later, but Porter’s writing veers off in a slightly different direction as the piece develops and they edge closer together.

There are times when the kookiness of the whole thing feels a little too engineered, the characters’ collage of quirks a little too contrived, but this is redeemed by a downbeat, melancholy ending. These two people probably can’t fix one another – perhaps no one can – but in their own way they can offer each other solace, which in this messy, all too often hostile, world might just be enough.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: Bullet Catch at the Traverse

The mythology of the bullet catch is considerable. It is said that twelve people have died while performing it. Though this is most often said by magicians who are about to perform the trick in order to increase the tension in the room.

The illusion involves a loaded gun being fired towards the magician’s mouth by a volunteer; the magician usually appears to stumble from the sheer force of it, before standing up to reveal the pre-marked bullet clenched between his teeth. (Penn and Teller do a double version complete with Kevlar vests and laser gun sights, two little red dots dancing over their open mouths).

The most famous victim of the bullet catch ‘curse’ was Chung Ling Soo, in actual fact an American called William Ellsworth Robins, who caught a bullet in the more conventional way – a fatal wound in the chest – after his gun malfunctioned and a live round was fired. One of the most famous proponents of the bullet catch on the other hand was Scottish magician, John Henry Anderson, and both these men have perhaps in part been an influence on playwright and performer Rob Drummond’s new show, a fusion of stage magic and storytelling.

With his mustard waistcoat and neat, clipped beard, looking not unlike a Hibernian Derren Brown, Drummond makes an amiable stage presence. He narrates the story of William Henderson, a Victorian magician who died while performing the catch, expiring on stage in front of a crowd of two thousand. The narrative hinges on whether Henderson was a victim of the curse or whether, despite a happy marriage and considerable professional success, he had he simply decided his life had no meaning and so engineered his own very public demise.

Drummond intersperses Henderson’s story with a magic act of his own, performing acts of mentalism and a spot of table levitation with the help of a volunteer before finishing the show with the illusion from which the show takes its title. The volunteer is cast in the role of the man who would eventually, inadvertently kill Henderson and Drummond takes care to put them at ease, building a relationship over the course of the hour in much the same way Brown did in his Russian roulette stunt: there is even some hugging.

Drummond makes some intriguing points about the illusion of free will in the world, but this, like the story of Henderson, remains rather frustratingly underdeveloped. Similarly the magic strand of the show is hampered by the need to incorporate the storytelling. Backstory and myth-building is all part of the illusionist’s art but here the balance is always a little off and with the exception of a stunt involving a shattered beer bottle there’s a curious and crucial lack of suspense throughout – and is there really anyone still flummoxed by the workings of the table levitation trick?

More interesting is the way Drummond engages with his volunteer and the improvisational element that this brings to the production. At the performance I saw the volunteer was an engaging presence herself and committed to the process, but a different pick could result in a very different show. An early bit of interaction goes slightly awry, through miscommunication rather than sabotage, and while it is affably handled by Drummond it illustrates just how easily a show such as this could capsize. Perhaps, for both audience and performer, it is here that the real suspense lies.

Reviewed for Exeunt