Review: Go to the Devil and Shake Yourself

This was my first time sitting through a musical set relating the history of the papacy up until the end of the 14th century, so I was open to the evening being one of any kind. Joe Murphy tells us that he normally performs with a band who could not make it, so instead he has Polly Maclean accompanying on voice and melodeon – a small handheld keyboard with a tube in which to blow into and produce sound. The venue is difficult – the air conditioning sound won’t turn off, something in the kitchen keeps making grinding noises and the concert happening upstairs is by a mile the loudest pub performance I have ever heard – but Joe apologises charmingly and we move on.

There is more to the papacy than I thought: this subject is full of gory stories of endless orgies, outrageous laws and unending wars – things that could only happen in a faraway Hobbesian world. The lyrics are amusing and I find myself thinking that these guys should be hired by Horrible Histories (an unoriginal thought as I see from the review quotes on the flyer). But then I find out that the orgies really are endless. This is a chronology of the popes in four parts. I’m not sure how I feel about this, especially with music being less than variable. Polly’s voice is lovely though – I wish I could have heard more of it. However, after the four-part chronology things do change up a bit. Joe moves from the guitar to the piano. He has already apologised for the noisy restaurant next door, so when I hear a small shrieking noise I assume it is that, but when it repeats exactly the same I realise it is Polly, inexplicably making owl noises with a small speaker.

I asked for Murphy’s interpretation of one of the lines, “Go to the Devil and shake yourself”. From his response, “Just let go and give yourself to the Devil”, I gather it must be pretty much a positive message, something like Willow Smith’s philosophy of “whip your hair back and forth”. I leave having learnt a lot. The show would have benefited hugely if a large audience were joining in with the chorus, tankards of beer in hand to slosh to and fro with the music, but this happened to be a quiet night.

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Review: Dare I Say It

‘Dare I say it’ is a whirlwind tour from birth right through the first day at school, house parties, first kisses, sex, death and more. It is beyond seamless. The script, entirely stitched together out of interviews, is refreshingly inventive in the fine details with no slack taken. The Prohibited Jargon theatre company has used the full potential of the real material to create a piece that is a reactive, organic force of unbelievable dynamism.

Each young actress has to portray a seemingly infinite number of characters and, while they are successful in inhabiting every  one with ease and subtlety of mannerism, these characters come together to form one “girl kind” with a few stereotypical, spitting adolescent boys in between. They are relentless, confident, and convincing. There is no weak link so it is hard to single anyone out of this true ensemble piece. Rosie Cava-Beale’s array of body language was diverse, attention-consuming and enchanting. Suzy Keeping was unafraid to sacrifice herself to allow every kind of girl to become, at once, a part of her. This is true for Grace Russell too, who starts the piece with a heavy birth scene which immediately collapses into comedy and back into the amusing tragedy of the first day at school. They manage to convey the light-heartedness of retrospect, inherent in the real lines that the words are taken from, at the same moment as the very real upset of the child.

One improvement I would suggest, is that they should not be afraid to dwell on the sad moments. Having enraptured the audience so fully they could have easily squeezed out some tears as well as the ready laughs.

‘Dare I say it?’ is truly appropriate to the performers’ age (17), capabilities, and real-life experiences, which is what allows it to appear not only polished but completely natural – this unendingly energetic piece does not even look like hard work. Apologies for the superlatives, I am simply trying to urge you to go and see this before it ends on the 18th. This is a rave review.

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Review: Elegant Nymphs

The ‘Elegant Nymphs’ are fed up. Without any of the special powers or movie deals that all the other mythical creatures get, they have decided to come to the Edinburgh Fringe to make their big debut… with this sketch show. It is energetic and intelligent, tailored to an audience who appreciate humour that is slightly off(beat), or to those who simply delight in the majesty of elegant nymphs. However, be warned: they can and will have sex with you without you knowing.

Highlight sketches include a sinister remake of ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ and a TV game show to find the world’s most emotionally strong man. Hugh Stanley and Anna Harris create a wordplay extravaganza, composed entirely out of 90s pop culture references for the 90s suckers out there. However, perhaps some of the most amusing bits are when the cast are just hanging out, being their normal nymph selves. In “real” life, Hugh, hoping to seduce Anna with his beat poetry, just cannot contain his creepy side and accidentally ends up stalking her and shrieking in her face that he has a horrible physical deformation.

Ollie Jones-Evans is clearly the star of the show, and entertains us with the gift of his gangliness, which has presumably instructed his particular brand of awkward physical humour. The other performers, Hugh, Anna and Rajiv Karia are also excellent performers, and they complement each other with their great energy, comic timing and general pizazz. The only thing I would say is that perhaps they would do better to stick to their longer scenes, as the weird characters and hilarious scenarios that they create are what I enjoyed most about the show.

I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and so if you, like me, love nymphs, ‘The Mighty Boosh’, or laughing, then make sure you pay a visit to the Bristol Revunions! One last piece of advise: I would think about where you decide to sit, because being licked by Anna Harris may be a risk factor (or pleasure) of sitting in the front row.

Originally published by Ed Fringe Review.

Review: Cheesebadger presents… Midge (a Two-Man Musical)

This is a two-man musical in which both men play all the music throughout, while performing the story. From the subversive title the humour follows accordingly: the balailaka (a three-stringed triangular guitarish thing) becomes a little ridiculous at times with its tiny ineffectual tinkling, especially alongside Tom Ovens’s strong guitar playing. The humour is intricately woven in such a meaningless manner as to becomes so entirely ridiculous that it constitues entertainment. For instance, my personal favourite plot thread starts at the beginning of the show with a skit in song about a tragic car crash killing Midge’s parents, which came about through the stubborn assumption that a Roman road will always be straight.

From this point in, the extreme phobia that Midge develops of all things Roman (Caesar salads, Roman Abramovich…) is a major fuel for the plot, and his only hope is in Clive the evil scientist’s lacking knowledge of lettuce species. The grand finale is a song involving Midge and his girlfriend June (also played by Frank Paul) expressing the beauty of their love through the enchanting metaphor of having semolina in their souls.

Ovens is a hilariously soul-felt Midge and Frank Paul’s rendition of the crazed old scientist is spot on. It was a small shame that the one who did most of the singing – Frank Paul – was slightly flat in much of his songs, but this isn’t a huge complaint.

Paul and Ovens have created an absurd, and somehow heartwarming story, somewhat along the lines of a ‘Flight of the Concords’ style humour of the moment, wherein the characters present themselves as incredibly downtrodden, and in fact quite depressingly alone. This production isn’t anything mind-blowing. It won’t change anything about how you see the world, but it is good fun for a midday chortle at nothing in particular.

Originally published by Ed Fringe Review.

Close to You

Jennie longs to be a star, to be loved. If you have ever wondered whether a sufferer of anorexia nervosa can look in the mirror and think she looks good, all skin and bones, the answer is no. But for Jennie that’s the beauty of it: she grows to look so grotesquely alien, that she feels she might be able to escape herself and become that star she has always longed to be, Karen Carpenter. Much of this performance reflects the doubled nature of her illness. Moments of seeming jubilation are tinged at the edges with our knowledge of her delusion, and laughter regularly dissolves into tears.

We quickly realise that her obsession with the idea of transforming into Karen, a figure who she describes as her idol and her saviour, is synonymous with the dark allure of her disease and the hold it has over her very personality. At one point her obsession with the transformation into Karen has taken hold of her reality so strongly that she renames a girl in the hospital who is more ill than her, as “Karen”. And when this girl is gone from her hospital bed, died in the night, there is a haunting moment in which Jennie is at a loss as to why no one will tell her what happened to “Karen”.

This being a one-woman show, she has to play all other characters, which she does so through different costumes and accents. Most impressive of all, however, was when she enacts a conversation with her therapist, differentiating between the two characters simply by dramatically relaxing her features and softening her eyes, so that we suddenly realise the manic edge that there has been to every moment of her performance of Jennie.

The set enhances the dark underside of her performance: movie star dressing room mirror lights, which one might initially see as the bright lights of a glamorous life, but for the warped mirrors on either side of her, black paint oozing down them.

Written by the actress, the complex script with its subtly interwoven themes is what makes this production outstanding. Though many of those in the audience will never have gone through the same thought processes of someone with such a severe eating disorder, her descriptions were so honest, true and beautifully written that one is given a real snapshot inside the head of this disease.

The Canterbury Tales

Think Chaucer. Think 600-page middle English text. Think again with Andrew Ainscough’s updated version for the stage, which recognises the tales as the ripe ground that they are for physical humour and bawdry. This group have condensed the entire of the pilgrims’ journey into one hour of song and storytelling by focussing on the characters and the outer frame narrative; it is these characters that come to life, rather than those in the stories they tell. This was very much an ensemble production, centred around a storytelling method which worked, and allowed for stronger performances to hold together what could otherwise have felt a little amateurish in places.

Each character in turn takes on the central role of storyteller, and as they do so they turn the other characters into puppets who act out their tale, moved around the stage as if by words alone. This was a charming storytelling method and to boot the actors looked like they were genuinely enjoying themselves, and this enjoyment rubbed off on the audience. Particularly convincing and lively performances came from Matt Simpson as the Miller, Alex Varey as the knight and Katie Gledhill as the drunken Cook, who did well to avoid the traps of poor drunk acting. She was likeably light-hearted and her slapstick was amusing and unforced – even as she came close to obliviously battering her entire fellow cast with various kitchen utensils.

The addition of song was a great complement to both the warm and the lewd elements of the production, but the talents of the group could have been better harnessed. Lisa Coleman’s voice is very fine, and I would have wished to hear more of it and louder, above the others in the group songs. Having been entertained by the warmth and physical wit of several of the characters, I felt that the shadow puppetry was somewhat less exciting and so felt a little gratuitous; it is hard to feel engaged in characters when they are represented to you by three lightly jiggling spoons, limited in their ability to supply any emotion or even to mimic actions.

I would have enjoyed a slightly more varied way of portraying the knight’s macho-ness than his repeatedly asserting himself with the word ‘fuck’. If you’re going to swear, do it with more gusto and variation. In fact, everything could have been more in a show which has the seeds to be truly entertaining. More energy, more lewd jokes, more physicality and this show has potential to be greatly improved.

A Matter of Life and Death

This is a truly original and aesthetically delicious production that enchants with its sweet, romantic premise, and the judicial appeal against the courts of heaven that follows: “…nothing is stronger than the law in the universe, but on Earth, nothing is stronger than love.” The frame narrative of this production is slightly altered; the story is now told by a small, teddy-bear clutching boy in pyjamas who watches the characters’ actions all the way through. But this does not mean it is turned into a children’s production; rather, it adds excuse for playful physical theatre, tongue-in-cheek acting, and a certain Wes Anderson-esque childish quirk.

Conductor 71, played by Greg Coates, makes the show with his delightfully suave charisma, much like in the original film. June is played by a boy, but this is no barrier; Jonas Moore’s performance adds charm and if you close your eyes you will hear that he has managed to imitate the diction of a 1940’s Hollywood actress. I was slightly confused as to why this production had added a few girls in extra bit parts. This was distracting and I felt they should have run with an all male cast, or found a girl to play the female part, though it would have been a shame to lose Jonas in this part. Christian Hines, is very well cast for the part of Peter Carter, and Charlie Raines makes an amusing and charming Dr. Frank Reeves.

Louise Furlong has done an amazing job with the set design, which is gorgeous with its detailed set painting, evocative of some of the original technicolour setting of the film, and lush materials. The use of the onstage box through which scenes flit in and out is truly imaginative, and adds to the idea of a magical world, suggestive of Punch and Judy boxes or Narnian wardrobes.

The physical theatre is not the focus of the show, but a visual enhancement which keeps the energy of the piece up and adds to its playfulness. A troupe of pyjama’d little boys (those listening to the story) move the set across the stage and are mostly invisible to the characters on stage, except for some unacknowledged playful interaction. They are highly polished in a way that is remarkable for a school production; this show is ready for a bigger audience.

The Uncanny Valley

I am ushered to my seat by two terrifyingly wide-eyed men with shaved heads and blinding smiles. Once I have assured one of these sim-like people that I am sitting comfortably, the show is allowed to begin. What comes next is a whirlwind tour of main character Wilson’s life up till now – that is, some way off in the distant future – through birth, orphanhood and geekdom, as enacted by brightly coloured sock puppets through synchronised dance. When we finally meet adult Wilson, that is the one played by a human actor (Frode Gerlow) rather than a grey sock, he is a delightfully naïve, blinking moron, who will entertain and enchant us throughout the production as he progresses into a man who is, in his robot girlfriend Phoebe’s words “fully operational”. This is a tale of the first love between man and robot, as related to us by their “digital descendants” way off in the future.

Simon Maeder is delightfully irritating as a goofy rapping weatherman, but his real strength lies in the many parts he plays in between his character Chris Diamond’s scenes – from a whole museum’s worth of humanoid robots dating from 2018, to the seriously impressive sound effects he produces through a megaphone. When Phoebe first awakes he brings her to life with sounds that are in sync with Phoebe’s every robotic swivel, from her eyeballs to her fingertips. His most impressive feat is when he evokes a whole scene in which Phoebe is channel-flipping on an unseen TV set, by cycling through a series of clearly distinguished genres using only barely audible mumbling and a few meaningless phrases.

Maria Askew does not speak much in her role as Phoebe the robo-girlfriend, but her offstage voices are intelligently humorous, as was her physical performance. She discovers the human pleasure in dancing at one point, and as she does so she draws Wilson into copying her every movement, until he suddenly finds that they are creating a replication of Pong – that retro tennis game – in the air, out of their groovy dance moves.

This is a smart production, which manages to be goofy and slick at the same time. The devised script is sharp and funny, with much humour made out of Wilson and Phoebe’s inter-species love, (with lines from Phoebe such as “When you leave, parts of my system shut down. In need of repair”, to which he responds simply “I miss you too Phoebe”). A seamless show; I had a great time.

Under Milk Wood

In a play which is composed solely of the inner thoughts of a Welsh village of a certain era, and is sometimes sub-titled as a ‘play for voices’, accents are sort of a big deal. I felt that this play was probably a bad choice for a cast who had the unfortunate disadvantage of Canadian accents. Though there were interspersed attempts at sounding Welsh, this manifested in fairly arbitrary r-rolling and a few strange concoctions which were, alarmingly often, closer to Indian than Welsh.

This production obviously took a lot of hard work to create, as it was really very polished and involved some impressive feats. For many of the narrator’s lines the actors spoke in large groups, with sentences divided up phrase by phrase for the individual cast members to speak in turn, seamlessly as one. However, seamlessness was not always a positive; the production was almost without pause, and spoken at such a speed as to lose individual performances and leave us with an endless babble of undifferentiated speech. Perhaps simply slowing the performance down (and abridging as necessary) would make a huge difference. Speed does not equal energy in a production, and silence should be an inseparable component of any play.

Moments of respite from this constant wall of sound came from those scenes involving Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, played by Stephanie Marinakos, and her two dead husbands, played by Kevin Black and Michael Moussis. These were differentiated by the use of well-suited masks and a much slower pace, so as to accommodate the ghosts’ echoing voices, and proved to be a snapshot of what standards this production could reach. I was able to absorb what they were saying and enjoy their distinct ‘voices’, which immediately stood out as dramatic and meaningful.

Two other voices who I actually very much enjoyed were those of Mr. and Mrs. Cherry Owen, played by Brendan Walker and Natasha La Rosa. Their intimate bed talk of drunken antics was genuinely entertaining. Apart from these highlights, I felt many of the other performances to be a steady flow of misdirected caricatures.

The costumes, which did sometimes appear over their uniform tie-dye t-shirts, made a huge difference by helping to create context and differentiation between characters. The folk dance with audience participation was also a nice original touch. However, for the most part, this production was all a bit too Glee club for me, and for Dylan Thomas.

Review: We Got Rhythm

This is a production that seems to be fuelled by ideas, but we are given no time to process the overarching one, as it only emerges at the very end. I do think it might have been wiser to choose something simpler for such a short time slot (1/2 hour). The performers were technically good, with mostly enjoyable singing, dancing and acting, but I can’t help but think that they might have chosen something to better than this to show off their talent. ‘We Got Rhythm’ is an allegorical story with simplistic characters (apparently named things like ‘Idealist’ and ‘Patriot’ in the script) does not allow so much for subtle acting. Most of the piece was of a confused gobbledygook jargon, wherein the actors cry oddly two-dimensional jabber… but then we find out that this is not the real play.

Honestly, I came out thoroughly confused, having been given very little time at the end to process the “real” section of the play. Now I wonder, can I criticise? They themselves mention the strangeness of the dancing in the inside play, within the outer play. Am I to mention the faults of the acting in the inside play? Perhaps it was all an act on purpose. Are we even supposed to process the ideas as being presented seriously in the first play, when it is only a kind of quotation of an art work. I’ve seen plays within plays before, but this was completely dominated by the “play within” rather than the play itself.

After the performance the director tells me that the writer is ungoogleable. Ungoogleable you say?! Yes! Well actually, no. I found the writer. Quite easily. In fact she’s still alive and I assume does not know of her play being unearthed from the bowels of a disused library. What does this mean? Surely someone in the production must know this? Why the added mystery? Are we the play within the play? I’m overreacting but this production left me thoroughly confused. Everything seemed to be not what it was… perhaps you should go and see it yourself. I supposed it’s actually quite intriguing. I retract everything.

Originally published by Ed Fringe Review.