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 The Theatreguide.London Reviews

EDINBURGH FESTIVAL AND FRINGE 2010

The several simultaneous events that make up 'The Edinburgh Festival' - the International Festival, the Fringe, the Comedy Festival, etc. - bring literally thousands of shows and performers to the Scottish capital each August.  No one can see more than a small fraction of what's on offer, but with our expanded team of dedicated reviewers, we reviewed close to 250. Virtually all of these shows tour after Edinburgh, and many will come to London, so the Festival is a unique preview of the coming year.

This year, for Edinburgh only, we gave star ratings, since festival goers have shown a preference for such shorthand guides. Ratings range from Five Stars (A Must-See) down to One Star (Surely there's something better you can do with your time), though we urge you to look past the stars to read the accompanying review.

Because the list is so long, we have split it into two pages. The reviews are in alphabetical order (soloists by last name), with A-L on this page and M-Z on another

Scroll down this page for our review of  Abandoman, Acre and Change, Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein, Alcatraz, Aleister Crowley, Mark Allen, All The Queen's Children, Anatomy of Fantasy, Another Someone, Apples, As Far As the Beach, At The Broken Place, At Home With Mrs. Moneypenny, Attempts, The Author,

Bacchae (CalArts), Bacchae (AHSTF), Bane, Bane 2, Bare, Belt Up's Lorca Is Dead, Belt Up's Metamorphosis, Magnus Betner, Bette/Cavett, A Big Day For The Goldbergs, The Big Smoke, Birds With Skymirrors, Bliss, Bluebird, Bound, Breathing Corpses, Bud Take The Wheel, Bye Polar,

The Cage, Simon Callow, Susan Calman, Cambridge Footlights, Cambridge Medics Revue, Cannes, Cape Academy, Nathan Caton, Cautionary Tales, Changeling, Chortle Student Comedy Award, The City and Iris, Closest to the Moon, Comedy Biscuit, Conical Decline of Everything, Nina Conti, Continent, Cooking For Love,  A Corner of the Ocean, Julien Cottereau, Could It Be Forever, Cracks, The Crying Cherry,The Cure,

The Dandelion's Story, Death of a Theatre Critic, Decky Does A Bronco, Degenerates, Gary Delaney, Derelict, Diary of a Sentimental Killer, Difference Between Gin and Bacardi, Doctor Faustus (Cambridge), Doctor Faustus (Offshoots), Dr. Horrible's Singalong, Don't Touch Me There, Durham Revue,

Edinburgh Fridge, En Route, Ernest and the Pale Moon, An Evening With Dementia, An Evening With Elsie Parsons,  Fair Trade, Fascinating Aida, Fastest Woman Alive, Fat Bald and Loud, Feathers, Mick Ferry, Fever Chart, Figs in Wigs, Final Moments, Firing Blanks, First Love, Tim Fitzhigham, Flanders and Swann, Flesh and Blood and Fish and Fowl, Flor de Muerto, Freefall, Fresher,

Rhod Gilbert, The Girl In The Yellow Dress, Green Eggs and Hamlet, Grimm Fairytales, Gutted, Toby Hadoke, Hamlet Blood in the Brain, Hamlet End of a Childhood, Hamlet the Musical, Harlekin, Sadie Hasler, Hit Me, Homo Asbo, Honest, Hood, Colin Hoult, How To Be an Imaginary Friend, Kai Humphries, Hunchback of Notre Dame,

I Claudia,  I Elizabeth, I Wish You Love, Icarus' Mother & Red Cross, Imperial Fizz, Improverts, Intertwine, In Touch, It's Always Right Now, Jack Pratchard, Jack the Knife, Jacob's Ladder, Jam and Marmalade, Jordan, Miles Jupp, Just Macbeth, Keepers,

Language of Angels, Tony Law, Legless'n'Harmless, Les Enfants Terribles, Lesson in Chaos, Lidless, Little Black Bastard, Locherbie, Lonesome Foxtrot, Long Live The King, Lost Boy


Abandoman: Pic'n'Mix Tape   Pleasance             ****
Motor-mouth Rob Roderick raps and riffs, rubbery-faced James Hancox sings and strums. You’re unlikely to find a more exciting show that takes the improvisatory element in stand-up and rap and finds comic nirvana where they join. The duo also take working the audience to an intriguing level in search of material for the rap musicals they compose for each show. Pouncing on bearers of names and jobs deemed to be useful to the creative process, the rest of us are asked to vote on our preferences. Tonight we got an architect of glass houses and a hotel reservations supervisor, both occupations prompting probing of what they actually do and what their dreams are – as fascinating as it was funny. Interviews over, Roderick and Hancox take over and weave architect and supervisor into a deliciously improbable rap romance in which Roderick astoundingly avoids rhyming glass with arse. In between the mayhem he tells tales of teaching rap in schools in Ireland, dealing with ten-year-olds grappling with the unlikely grammar of gangsta or coming up with a thunderously profane ending to their passion play.  Of course there’s a structure to the evening and of course there are sections of routines to bridge like stepping stones, but the first minute in you realise that every night will be a unique experience, fuelled by a comic inventiveness that must have most straight-ahead comics scratching their heads in wonder as to where it all comes from.  Nick Awde

An Acre and Change   Bedlam                   **
Written by Edward Neville, An Acre and Change attempts to inspire new perspectives on the conflict of Northern Ireland by allegorising it in a fictitious world where France occupies Britain. The play starts off slowly, attempting to clearly establish this conflicted landscape. The choice of political conflict is never made clear, raising questions as to why something much more relevant and far easier to explain wasn't used. In doing so the vast array of peculiar accents could have been explained away, and precious time could be used to convey the intended message. This is political theatre, after all. The difficulty inhabiting this fantasy was shared by the actors, with most of the performances feeling stiff and unsure. Sadly, the only actor genuinely comfortable enough on-stage to be truly engaging was only in the first scene, leaving the rest of the play wanting. This play has potential, but trips itself up before getting off the mark. The allegory doesn't quite work and instead feels somewhat flavourless. The exposition takes far too long, struggling to tie the fantasy into our reality, and any time spent trying to establish any sort of perspective is rushed, making it feel both immature and insincere.  Kris Lewis

An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein   Spaces@Surgeons Hall         ****
Unless you’re terrified of a few small profanities, then the title oversells the mildly dark comedies presented. Instead the audience sees a standard sequence of eight one-act plays performed by a young cast reminiscent of the wit of Justin Bieber, rather than someone like George Carlin. Most people will probably recognize Shel Silverstein as a sardonic American cartoonist, a poet, or the writer of Johnny Cash’s inimitable song “A Boy Named Sue”. These plays certainly retain his voice, a rather frustrated optimistic yet realistic view of life often resulting in a surprising coda. The plays performed can be connected by a common theme; pointing out the small ridiculous notions of modern existence, sometimes moralising, but always truthful. This is an able cast, with an occasional stand out performance. Perhaps the most memorable act is the most simplest. As a couple gets ready to go to sleep, the wife tries to manipulate her husband into considering and then believing that they are in a sinking lifeboat survival situation, allowing her to work out what his priorities are concerning his wife, baby, and mother. If her mother-in-law doesn’t go overboard, her husband is certainly getting it wrong. Both actors could be considered the highlights of the production. When it’s going right, there’s a good relationship on stage, it’s a fast pace, and there’s plenty of energy. This way, the comedy flows more naturally. But unless you’re the Pope, you won’t be shocked. Joe Morgan

Alcatraz   Underbelly            ***
Smeared make-up, teared faces and sorrowful looks, this is a tale of lost souls. Set in one hotel room, a woman recollects her experience of the guests who have come and gone, introducing us to four of her favourite. Playing to us recordings she had secretly documented, it is clear from the off that she is somewhat unhinged. The four guests inhabit the space with her, ghost-like in presence, as they develop the stories on tape. A rejected graphic novelist, a grieving musician, an insomniac and a carer for her mentally ill brother are the equally unstable characters we meet. Initially an insightful piece of writing, the script gradually deteriorates, as do the performances. The strength of the beginning is in its mysterious nature, we are intrigued by this woman and the figures who haunt her. However, when the mystery is destroyed, so is the integrity; in short, the ending is disappointingly obvious.The set has a paper quality with a fragile feel to it which represents the psyche of the woman, demonstrating artistic flare. The way in which each block moves about the space, recreating different elements of the room is not only practical, but ingeniously reflective of the surreal style of the production. There is too much about this show that is under-developed. Sound is occasionally used effectively but at other points absent altogether, whilst physical expression is unoriginal and lacking in depth. It is just a shame that the innovative set suffered from a lack of abstract ingenuity. Georgina Evenden  

Aleister Crowley   C Central         **
The early-twentieth-century stage magician who became the hedonistic guru of an anti-Christian sect and revelled in being denounced as The Beast and The Wickedest Man In The World is presented by writer-performer John Burns in what is the standard mode of the genre, a mix of autobiography and demonstration of the man at work. His Crowley is a magician who half-believes in magic, a libertine who once had a real (and possibly drug-induced) supernatural experience that inspired the philosophy and writings that became the bible of his new religion, a kind of proto-Existentialism that reasoned that with no God man was free to define himself and the golden rule became 'Do what thou wilt.' Burns' script suggests roots of Crowley's mysticism in his adulation of his Christian minister father, but that's about the extent of his analysis and insight. And despite a performance that ranges from quiet introspection to rafter-shaking bombast, he rarely moves behind the mask of the polished showman, evading the question of just how much of a charlatan Crowley was and leaving him as much an enigma as before.  Gerald Berkowitz

Mark Allen   GRV           ***
The premise of Mark Allen's stand-up set is that, rebelling against a world that offers sixty-second newscasts and sells energy drinks in shot-size doses for those too rushed to drink a full can, he decided to slow down. For a month he went without his mobile phone, email and internet, took the bus instead of the tube and let escalators do their job without helping them along. And as he smelled the roses and enjoyed the scenery he found his life reversed as he who had grumbled at dawdlers ahead of him in queues was now making his friends ring his landline and hope he was in or wait for him to turn up. Actually the concept turns out not to have as much comic potential as Allen might have hoped, and some of his biggest laughs come from incidental passing observations, like the dangers of using Frogger as a model for crossing busy streets. But Allen is a pleasant guy, his audience interaction is enjoyable, and he ends his act with an original and audacious twist that he labels a gift of time.  Gerald Berkowitz

All The Queen's Children   C Aquila         ***
When I was little, dreaming of the old cliche of fame and fortune, I didn't know how lucky I was. In the places where 'those bloody pests coming to take our jobs' come from, kids dream too but of a better life. It's human nature. During the election campaign, immigration became a dirty word and many forgot a simple fact: children are not born equal. The play's simple message is this - we are not all the Queen's children. Playwrights Dawn Harrison and Rosanna Johangard introduce four refugees who after their ordeal of arriving in a small B&B in London, have just found out that their journey into the shadows of our streets is only the beginning. It is a well written poignant piece. Intermingling narratives, characters and timelines converge and diverge, effectively using verbatim, chorus and physical theatre. The fourteen-strong cast are an adept diverse group, fluid in motion working together seamlessly like a school of fish. They are an impressive ensemble, portraying the dark and light elements of this production with ease. I just wish I was surprised more. The refugee stories are moving but familiar and somehow stagnant, portrayed just like a human photograph on the paranoid commentary in the press. This show will stun you, shake you and refuse to let go until days after. Immigration isn't about identity cards, relocation schemes and points against your name. This play makes you realise, and not to use another cliche, but it's about people and their dreams.  Joe Morgan

Anatomy of Fantasy   Assembly    ****
Time really puts things into perspective. If you come to Do Theatre’s new show with any memories or expectations based on their previous creations - the last one, Hangman, was seen in Edinburgh in 2007 – you’ll find yourself having to reconsider.  Where their previous work was chaotic, whimsical and exhilarating, their latest is thoughtful, meditative, intense. Where they previously drew their inspiration from films, fairytales and cabaret, they now turn to Ikea-style slickness and sci fi. Where there was wonder, there is wisdom. This is a good thing – it is about moving in step with the times. Twenty years after the end of communism, this Russian company based in Germany has re-examined the key themes and issues underlying their work now. Liminality is still part of it, but rather than being just a vehicle for expression of complex emotions, their art has become a means of making illuminating statements about accumulated experience.  This piece, still haunted by some striking mythical imagery and drenched in deep urges, is elegantly packaged as a series of still lives and contemporary prints on the theme of four seasons. And, therefore, yes – it is about the passage of time. Duska Radosavljevic

Another Someone   Bedlam       *****
If you are after something young and refreshing, unpretentious and uplifting – go and see this show. Even though it probably defies most neat categorisations – being both a contemporary dance with words and a musical with storytelling – this little show about happiness could probably pass for a piece of easy audience therapy too. The fact that it doesn’t try too hard to be older or clever than it is, probably lets this piece get away with occasional narrative flaws. And they make these work by flaunting them. Becky Wilkie’s thoroughly enchanting music makes the whole thing bind seamlessly together and she appears in the triple role of a composer, musician and narrator. RashDash’s founders Helen Goalen and Abbi Greenland as well as their new member Marc Graham are all talented singers and dancers too, making it feel as though this quartet redefines the notion of a triple-threat.  Not only that, but they genuinely threaten to break new ground and bring about a whole new brand of music theatre - if not an album or two as well. So do go and see them while they are such amazing value for money. Happiness guaranteed.    Duska Radosavljevic

Apples  Traverse      ****
This raw adaptation of Richard Milward’s debut novel follows the lives of several teens from Middlesbrough as they navigate the most painful, exhilarating, and confusing moments of adolescence. A talented ensemble of five actors explores issues as varied as love, drugs, child abuse and death as they weave together powerful and poignant coming of age tales. A sparse, colorful set is used to great effect, inviting the audience to spy on intimate teen moments in bedrooms and bathroom stalls, classrooms and discos, all of which reveal tender, funny, frightening, and all too real realities of growing up in modern times. Artfully directed, authentic in tone and texture, Apples is sure to make a splash as a gritty yet sensitive portrait of teenage angst.   Hannah Friedman

As Far As The Beach   Space@Venue 45         **
Exploring the struggle and guilt associated with loss, As Far as the Beach follows teen Sophie (Lauren Fox) as she struggles to deal with her brother Gary's battle with leukaemia. Despite Gary (Simon Humphris) being remarkably upbeat and optimistic, the family are determinedly depressing. Set in an interrogative counselling session, the play is shown through a series of flash-backs as Sophie retells the last few days of her brother's life. Unfortunately, this ambitious subject is handled clumsily and Stephanie Corbett's writing feels insincere. Exposition is non-existent and characters we are supposed to feel empathy for, destroy any sense of realism by saying and doing things with no clear motivation. The biggest culprits are the parents; two-dimensional constructs poorly designed to create drama by acting with little consideration for anything other than themselves. Dance is ineffectually used to display moments of tenderness, choreographed to music filled with overly gushing lyrics that leave little room for interpretation. The occasional moment of physical theatre shine through as an appealing alternative, but the only piece polished enough to be captivating is a fleeting ride on a roller-coaster. Insincere and indulgent, this self-absorbed play struggles to provoke insight or emotion and is in need of a more experienced director with a more experienced viewpoint.  Kris Lewis

At The Broken Place   C Central        ****
A group of high school students, teachers and parents are about to commemorate the 20th anniversary of a devastating shooting that took place at Sierra High School. To mark the date, a drama teacher and a parent of one of the 13 kids lost in the shooting are staging a performance based on the massacre. The resulting play-within-a-play is never actually performed, the audience sees the rehearsal process and the difficulties the production team encounter when trying to stage this taboo subject. However, it is actually rather hard to believe that Sierra High School and the entire incident are fictional. The production is staged with such realism that we are constantly reminded of previous incidents such as those at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech. The performance achieved this authenticity through the powerful actors. A woman whose best friend was murdered and a man who was injured in the event, also known as the special advisors, were played by Zoe Swenson-Graham and David Cullinane, both of whom gave truly spine-chilling performances. Clare Latham‘s excellent portrayal of the Principal, also haunted by her memories of that devastating day, was similarly stirring and admirable. Although there were often moments where I found it difficult to follow some of the script’s insinuations, the performance was still powerfully thought provoking. Every aspect of the performance had been well thought through, from costume changes and props to set, lighting, sound and, of course, the unnervingly believable acting. Yasmeena Daya

At Home With Mrs. Moneypenny   Assembly     ****
An average Fringe punter might be forgiven for mistaking this show – taking place in an AGA shop in New Town and featuring free champagne – for some kind of a culinary James Bond spin off. But judging by the amount of high powered and carefully timed action in this hour, it wouldn’t be far from the truth. Mrs Moneypenny is known to the readers of the Financial Times as a columnist who puts fun into finance and business into family management. As she is very fond of saying: she flies planes, she shoots guns, she runs a business and has three children, she writes books and lectures at a University. As of this month, she might well find herself fending off engagement offers from the motivational speaking circuit. Such was the power of her particular blend of laid back charm, infectious enthusiasm and firm grasp on her audience that you immediately want to be her best friend. This included men in the audience too who were particularly curious about Mrs Moneypenny’s sex life.  The original brief for her column in 1999 was to address gender issues in the work-place. Leading by example, Mrs Moneypenny could well consider that mission accomplished – and possibly take us all to even greater heights.   Duska Radosavljevic

Attempts   Vaults              *
Inspired by Martin Crimp's post-modernist play Attempts on her Life, this adaptation by six of Warwick University's undergraduates attempts to deal with questions of technology, modernity, and what it is to be female. Painfully slow to start, Attempts then remarkably manages to decelerate before anything of note can happen. Each scene drags onwards, repeating images and phrases for so long that they become painful rather than provoking, particularly the section involving a pair of boasting internet paedophiles. The whole performance feels as though it was once a 15 minute show that has mutated into an hour simply by repeating everything four times. The multimedia aspects add very little, the projections and televisions barely complementing the action on-stage. Poorly pre-recorded dialogue is blasted through speakers, peaking and popping on every word, creating a droning accompaniment that is unpleasant and difficult to listen to. The final result is a performance that is as entertaining and exciting as waiting for a dial-up modem to connect. About as fast, too.  Kris Lewis

The Author  Traverse      ***
Tim Crouch's play, first seen at the Royal Court last autumn, has been transported intact to the Traverse without even the passing references to the original theatre changed. As at the Court, the audience is divided into two banks of seats facing each other with no playing area between, and only discover when Chris Goode begins speaking that the actors are seated among them. Goode plays an enthusiastic theatregoer, Tim Crouch plays a playwright named Tim Crouch, and Vic Llewellyn and Esther Smith play actors with their own names. The subject of much of what the characters talk about is their experience with a previous play by the fictitious Crouch, about war crimes and sexual abuse, and the emotional toll their research and performances took. It is here that the play flirts dangerously with bad taste, equating the writer and actor's traumas with those of the actual victims in their research, but then anyone watching any play is in danger of responding more fully to the fiction than they would to reality, and thus this play forces questioning of the theatrical experience that goes beyond the mere physical layout, and any responses, including walkouts, are welcomed as evidence of success. That said, it must be noted that any sense of informality or destruction of the fourth wall is illusory, with the performers sticking strictly to the script and not coping well with the audience interruptions they pretend to invite. 
Gerald Berkowitz

The Bacchae   Venue 13         ***
In this throbbing, homoerotic take on the Bacchae, the female followers of Dionysus are replaced by virile young men. The original text by Euripides is imbued with eroticism and is often seen as a potent comment on social suppression and subversion; this version is not that much of a leap from the original. Whilst the bacchanalian acts were more overtly subversive when committed by Greek women, using the story to present young men breaking loose from social suppression makes sense. Unfortunately, what could have been a poignant exploration of the gay male in contemporary society was over-indulgently turned into a camp farce. Fun - yes, but with plenty of wasted opportunities. 

Theatrically the piece is strong, and often beautiful. The text is enacted with flair, though there where some truly unforgivable moments were otherwise poetic peripeteia was punctured by what might come across as poor porn dialogue. The acting is solid within this heightened form. However, the actors fail to present characters that are neither young nor male. Perhaps this was a conscious directorial decision, but one which makes the piece a-tonal. 

This version had the potential to explore homo-erotic curiosity within heterosexual men or the suppression of homosexuality within society. Regrettably, the complete lack of counterpoint within the camp - all male - cast did not allow for any sense of transformation or transgression. There was an opportunity to suggest Pentheus’ heterosexuality was an artifice exposed by Dionysus but there was little artifice to expose in the first place. Problems also arise when Dionysus proclaims that it is his intention to humiliate Pentheus. Is the company undermining its own political agenda by making this act of humiliation an initiation into the homo-erotic cult? This piece is fun and often aesthetically opulent. More thought on the overall dramaturgy of the piece would have taken it to another level. But for now, it is 'all balls and no brains'!  Ashley Layton

The Bacchae   Church Hill Theatre          ****
As the bloody head of Pentheus is held aloft, post Grand Guignol execution, one cannot accuse these high school students of being platitudinous. The decision to stage the famous sparagmos isn’t their only deviation from the conventional approach. Whilst Dionysus’ Anatolian heritage is often disregarded as simply denoting an inherent exoticism, these high school students have lionized the eastern influence. While not conceptually integral, this influence manifests itself in some very enjoyable moments. Throughout, two classically trained dancers, Aditi Acharya and Sampta Savla, move with confidence to Hindustani music. These moments of dance are used to represent the licentious bacchanalian behavior that perhaps the cast were a little too young to deal with outright. The company from North View High School Atlanta are one of many in the abundant assemblage of high school productions in the American High School Theatre Festival (AHTF). While a rare number of festival goers will wish to part with money to see a high school show, this is a strong and impressive addition to the AHTF program.  Ashley Layton

Bane  The GRV   ****   (reviewed at a previous Festival)
Bane is a hard-boiled detective story, with a typically broad and colourful cast including snitches, baddies, assistant baddies, molls, opera singers, a mad scientist and of course the lone wolf hero himself - all played by Joe Bone. The result is simultaneously a salute to and send-up of the genre, as the solo performer plays both sides of every conversation or shoot-out, not to mention a raft of sound effects and mood music. The fun of a show like this lies in the accuracy of the parody - that is to say, in having every comic moment or absurd plot twist vaguely remind us of some film noir precedent or at least seem true to the genre. And of course we enjoy the inventiveness and versatility of the actor jumping so seamlessly from role to role. This is in some ways the solo version of the sort of quick-change, multiple-role-playing almost-lose-control-of-the-juggling farce that has long been a fringe staple, and just about the only criticism to make of Bone is the seemingly perverse one that he is too much in control, not allowing us the added fun of watching the story and performance complications threatening to overwhelm him.
Gerald Berkowitz

Bane 2    Pleasance Dome        ****
Bane is back, and those who loved Joe Bone's first film noir tour-de-force are flocking to see the sequel. As in the original (see our review), Bone both salutes and parodies the conventions of the hard-boiled detective story, demonstrating in lines like 'He was as crooked as a dog's hind legs and as dirty as a hooker's underwear' how well he knows and loves the genre. And added to the homage is the delight of watching Bone playing all the roles himself. With nothing more than some live guitar mood music from Ben Roe, Bone plays the hero, everyone else (I lost count after twenty characters), several animals and all the sound effects, with his inventiveness and quick changes a large part of the fun. This time around Bane is the muscle for an Italian crime boss while a Russian godfather wants him killed. A buddy of Bane's doublecrosses him, the Russian is a bit too interested in his bodyguard's body, someone gets dumped in toxic waste and turns into a monster (much to the delight of passing Japanese tourists), and there's an open rip-off of a classic Monty Python gag, along with dozens of other quick jokes tossed off with the casualness of one whose comic imagination seems endless. Bane 3, we are told, is already in the works.  Gerald Berkowitz

Bare   Spaces@the Radisson                   ****
Written, produced, directed and choreographed by, and starring the same person is often a warning flag for fringe shows, but in the case of Renny Krupinski's Bare the combination is legitimate, the product of a writer who knows exactly how he wants his vision to take shape and who has the talent in all these areas to make it happen. This drama of illegal bare-knuckle fighting has a predictable plot, as a lad needing money is drawn into the business, only to be manipulated and trapped by the crooks and hardmen who run it, but playwright Krupinski captures the gritty reality of the story and actor Krupinski drives much of its dark energy as the oily but dangerous crooked boss. Director Krupinski has some difficulty sustaining the high energy of the appropriately intense fight sequences through the comparatively weaker plot and character-driven scenes, and is limited by the production values available on the fringe, but these are correctable weaknesses. There are strong performances from Paul Michael Giblin as the honourable young man with only one way to support his family and Kaitlin Howard doing more than you might expect with the Adrian role of the fighter's wife.  Gerald Berkowitz

Belt Up's Lorca Is Dead  C Soco    ***
As I’m sure you must have heard, it’s thrilling to be in Belt Up’s audience. You might find yourself lounging in an armchair or sitting on a cushion, having things whispered in your ear or finding yourself quite happy to play a character in a scene, even if you always thought you hated audience participation. Belt Up’s recreation of Andre Bretton’s study hosts a meeting of the surrealists at which they enact a play about Lorca’s Death. Aside from the host, such luminaries as Artaud and Eluard, Magritte and Bunuel, Aragon and even Dali and Gala are in attendance too. Much play on words and irrational fun is on the cards in such company and therefore it takes a while for the play within the play to get going. As a result it also takes a while to wrap it up, at which stage you might become painfully aware of the heat and of personal discomfort especially if you happen to be perched on a commode. But as we find, sacrifices must be made for the sake of art and time is just a construct anyway. 
  Duska Radosavljevic

Belt Up's Metamorphosis   C Soco         ****
You are bid welcome to the Belt Up! lair, where the audience is welcomed in and seated on cushions and armchairs. The make-up is grand guignol, the décor tatty Edwardian. The cast don’t so much as interact with the audience as flop in between or hand round biscuits. With us in their sitting room and with so many walls broken, how on earth will they get a play out of this? Well they do so effortlessly with this inventive version of Franz Kafka’s iconic tale about Gregor Samsa the travelling salesman who one day wakes up transformed into an insect, an event that has a devastating impact on his usually loving family. In James Wilkes’ twisted body Gregor’s transformation is complete, a daily reminder of his difference, amplified by the latticework of girders that make up his bedroom, raising his slanted bed high above our heads, his story told by the twisted creatures that inhabit the house’s nooks and crannies. Gregor’s easygoing father (Dominic J Allen) is the first to reject the son who has worked himself into the ground to provide for his family, followed by his reluctant mother (Lucy Farrett), still in conflict with her maternal instincts. His sister Greta (Veronica Hare) continues to care for him and is his link to the outside world, but she too starts to fade away. Meanwhile flashbacks turn up, snapshots of Gregor as his former self with his family, how he cared for them and their future, his war record. Musical interludes abound, culminating in a stunning massed foxtrot sequence. For a modern audience the horror of being ostracised and abandoned by one’s family far outweighs any fears we would have about rejection by society or work. By concentrating on Gregor’s domestic life, the horror of his rejection therefore becomes utterly heart-rending. Courtesy of Wilkes’ daring adaptation and Alexander Wright’s confident direction, Belt Up’s house style delivers all this with dollops of humour and skilful ensemble work.  Nick Awde

Magnus Betner   The Stand             ****
Magnus Betner is a shockjock who wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s also Swedish, though the accent is distinctly Hollywood American (“you Brits should make better films”) so there’s none of that smorgasbord lilt to bring back nostalgic memories of Chef from the Muppets. Which is probably just as well since blasphemy, paedophilia, segregation and anal sex are on the agenda. In fact Betner doesn’t endorse any of the above (save the last) but sees no reason why these should be taboo, working on the highly moral assumption that what we don’t talk about gets swept under the carpet and so does more damage. And that’s the thread that somehow links up the war in Afghanistan with his strict clergyman father, slapping other people’s kids with neo-nazi death threats. Provocative as they may outwardly seem, drily delivered routines such as digging up Swedish literary icon Astrid Lingren for sexual gratification or bemusedly allowing himself to be outed as bisexual as a demonstration of free speech rather than fact are also highly political – and possibly frighteningly personal. Betner is a comedian who has no problem with us laughing at his beliefs, and laugh he makes us. Nick Awde

Bette/Cavett   Zoo Roxy          ****
Grant Smeaton's play is essentially the verbatim re-enactment of the transcript of Bette Davis' 1971 appearance on Dick Cavett's American TV chat show. Virtually unknown in Britain, Cavett could be as oily and obsequious as David Frost, but he let his guests talk and didn't worry about getting laughs, and so they frequently loosened up in ways they didn't on other shows. Davis was clearly at ease with him, and while she didn't say much about her life and career that was new, she retold the old stories with a naturalness that probably conveyed more of her essence than anything she actually said. Smeaton himself plays Davis in drag, but without a hint of camp. He avoids all the exaggerated tics usually employed by Davis impersonators, but clearly has studied the videotape carefully, capturing both her natural body language and some sense of her actual speech patterns, notably the sudden shouting of random syllables. After a false and too oily start, Gordon Munro gets Cavett exactly right as well, and one of the nicest results of the verbatim transcript is watching him repeatedly trying and failing to get a word in edgewise when Davis is in full flow. Thanks to the willingness of both performers to submerge themselves into their characters, Bette/Cavett is fun both as documentary and entertainment.  Gerald Berkowitz

A Big Day For The Goldbergs  C Central      ****
Most families have peculiar dynamics, and not all bad. But it is Jewish (and a few Catholic) families that have made an art of it. Guilt. More Guilt. Even more. And with a huffy mother, demanding grandmother, longsuffering father, the nicely middle-class Goldbergs for Leeds tick all the boxes, so you can understand why daughters Lucille and Michele have their work cut out for them in this gently comic family portrait. After all, Lucille (Elisa Boyd) is preparing for pregnancy and marriage... in that order. But sometimes worrying about her mother worrying about what the in-laws might think takes second place to worrying about her errant sister Michele and what the family think. For pint-sized Michele (Emma Gordon) has run away to the circus (well, circus diploma course in London) and is worryingly single. Both girls will be the death of their family – or will they? I don’t think I’m giving anything away by revealing that there are no terrible skeletons in the closet, and things are as dippy as they are incisive. Grandmother can’t remember where Michele has inherited her short stature because she lost contact with all her family through coming to the UK with the Kindertransport; to bring home a future spouse with two doctors as parents is akin to providing the keys to heaven; a play does not have to mention matzo balls to acquire a Jewish flavour. Boyd and Gordon captivate with bubbly comic portrayals that convincingly create a play that is greater than the sums of its parts, Brian Daniels’s script being essentially overlapping monologues. And through the relationship of the Goldberg women (us men mere accessories to be kept from the parlour) comes the universal message that though blood may be thicker than water, it means little without love.  Nick Awde

The Big Smoke  Pleasance Dome      **
Although Theatre Ad Infinitum stresses its Lecoq training, Amy Nastbakken's performance in this self-written piece, as directed by Nir Paldi, consists almost entirely of standing more-or-less motionless in front of a prop microphone as she narrates the story of her character, a young artist who hits a creative block that snowballs into general despair and ultimately an almost passive suicide. The story itself is slim and, despite being told in the first person, seems external, too rarely illuminating the psychological and emotional journeys and thus not really evoking the cited models of Plath, Woolf and Sexton. The most real and touching moments in the narrative prove isolated interludes in the story - being briefly caught up in another artist's enthusiasm, or remembering an old boyfriend and being a bit startled by the strength of her residual anger. What power the piece has comes from the one notable performance element, as Nastbakken sings most of her narrative, in modes ranging from Bjork-like wailing to Broadway belting, but mainly in a smoky a capella blues that does occasionally colour the story with a sad moodiness or semi-mythic air, but that too often seems just an irrelevantly superimposed device.  
Gerald Berkowitz

Birds With Skymirrors  Edinburgh Playhouse    *
Tempest, Lemi Ponifasio’s opening show, named after Shakespeare’s classic featured a great darkness, some screams, slow motion, shuffling feet, glistening torsos, frequently slapped thighs and some white dust at the end. Any connection with Tempest seemed entirely arbitrary but a point was made in the programme note about the horrors of 9/11.  His second offering, Birds with Skymirrors, was apparently inspired by a real life incident where some island birds were observed by the author carrying VHS tapes in their beaks and were thus promptly interpreted as harbingers of climate change. This show then features a great darkness, some screams, slow motion, shuffling feet, glistening torsos, frequently slapped thighs and some white dust at the end. In addition there are three elegant and mysterious ladies at the centre of this creation. One sings a traditional song to open with, another poses for a while, delivering a slow-motion Ponifasio-style torso dance, wearing only a pair of stilettos. Dressed in black, the three appear together towards the end to do an elaborate routine involving white dust balls. However aesthetically pleasing, the piece lacks a discernable overall shape, and well over 90 minutes in, the ending seems altogether interminable. Truth be told, there is some striking imagery in this show, once again accompanied by a droning soundscape. Part of Ponifasio’s approach entails a type of enforced slowing down to facilitate reflection. However, I can’t help feeling that there seems to be something slightly outdated about this kind of a relationship with the audience.   Duska Radosavljevic

Bliss   C Aquila          ****
Bliss tells a tale about the futility of adoration in this extraordinarily challenging work, a Caryl Churchill translation of the Olivier Choinière drama. At first glance, the most powerful aspect of this mirrored world is the evocative atmosphere. As a cellist slowly plucks a string like a metronome, seven store assistants in Wal*Mart uniforms go about their daily lives in a monotonous robotic cycle to eventually retire to the staffroom. Two stories about Celine Dion and an abused girl in a newspaper take the interest of disturbed Caro, who begins to connect all three lives in a stream-of-consciousness trip of surrealism, fantasy, and visceral imagery. The actress that triple-roles as Celine, Isabel and Caro is a brave sensation among her talented cast, withstanding all aspects of this production with capable ease. As she is stripped to her underwear and placed in a hospital bath as the victim Isabel, she narrates how her body seems to be turning itself out, seemingly vomiting her oesophagus, her heart, and her ribcage. I was entranced by her ability to convey someone so infantilised, sexualised, and dehumanised. As soon as you find yourself stable, this cast subverts your suspicions with ease and takes you elsewhere, leaving the lasting effect of a disorientated, disjointed, but always an intoxicating picture.  Joe Morgan

Bluebird   Zoo Roxy          ****
An intimate space, a car bumper, four car seats, London streets flashing by on a projection and a mysterious phone booth; welcome to the world of the taxi driver. Simon Stephens undoubtedly has a talent for creating remarkable characters and the Exeter University Theatre Company do not let him down in their interpretation of this tragic story. We are treated to a little slice of London life, from the point of view of Jimmy; a writer turned taxi driver after a devastating incident five years previously changed the course of his life forever. In meeting the various clients of Jimmy, we learn more about this subdued cabby, who is made elusive yet likeable by the talented Will Hughes. Strong themes of death and loss resound throughout, making this a sombre piece with rare laughter. As is the case with many of Stephens’ characters, each faces a moral dilemma; a struggle within themselves for which they turn to a stranger (Jimmy) for advice. The play gets darker as we start to grasp the intensity of what Jimmy is suffering. This is brought home by a distressing final scene between Jimmy and his estranged wife, played convincingly by Helen Coles. Hughes and Coles bring a maturity to the roles they play and encapsulate the inconceivable without going over-board. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast are just as spectacular in their portrayals of various members of London society. Speaking from experience, Stephens’ words are by no means easy to do justice to, but this lot pull it off with skill and dedication. Georgina Evenden

Bound  Zoo Southside         ***
It’s not often that one comes across a theatre piece with traditional English folk singing. When it comes to the theatrical deployment of choral ‘a capella’ even British theatre makers have often looked to either Eastern European or Afro-American forms. But this is an all together new take on several traditional theatre genres. Mixing some crisp dialogue, inspired characterisation, energetic physicality and tender sea shanties, the six-strong male ensemble emerging from East 15, delivers a vibrant and engaging piece of contemporary satire. The story concerns the crew of a fishing trawler ‘The Violet’, which under the threat of bankruptcy and competition from the ‘New Hope’, venture into the turbulent sea. Ridden with inner rivalries and joined by a Polish outsider, the team is far from harmonious which raises the stakes in their fight for survival. Exploring the issues of changing values when it comes to community spirit and the pressures of capitalism, this is an eminently timely piece, concerned with finding a relevant and effective way of telling a familiar story. Although their plot could have a more elaborate resolution, the Bear Trap Theatre pack a lot into an hour and present a highly promising debut.  Duska Radosavljevic

Breathing Corpses   Sweet Grassmarket            ****
'When a man has lost all happiness, he's not alive. Call him a breathing corpse' - goes Laura Wade's rather literal Sophoclean assertion in this tragic play. One might be wary of the level of despair implied by such a theme but Liverpool University Drama Society have managed to pull it off with perfectly pitched pathos. This fine ensemble of actors portray with intelligence the cadaverous characters caught in the play's circular web of determinism. Indeed Wade described the play’s structure as a perfect circle, the practical result of which may confuse some but delight all others. The trickiness of the plot is dealt with well by the company who ensure that all the necessary clues are unassumingly placed throughout. The competent use of set and slick scene changes ensure a brisk pace through the colliding worlds and lives. Potential audiences needn’t fear self-indulgence. The comedy that peppers the scenes of domestic violence and dismay is thankfully well managed ensuring a well balanced production. There is nothing particularly groundbreaking here but the piece is a fine example of a strong company taking on a popular script. A successful production of a Grassmarket favorite.  Ashley Layton

Bud Take The Wheel - I Feel A Song Coming On   Underbelly                    ***
In a nice typical Middle England family father beat his gay son almost daily until he left home, mother is still grieving for her miscarried twins twenty years ago and teenage daughter hasn't spoken to dad for eight years and is pregnant by the boarder, who has issues of his own. Now the son works for property developers planning a big project in the village and father is determined to block it. Playwright Clara Brennan almost succeeds in piecing together a successful play out of these soap opera materials, making the characters both believable and sympathetic so that we want to see how their story work itself out, and there are strong performances particularly by Gunnar Cauthery as son and Anna Kirke as mother. But the several themes and plot strands prove too much for Brennan or director Hannah Price to manage, and some are left as loose ends while others are vaguely resolved only through unbelievable character reversals and confessions. There is a real writer here, but one who will need to find a more amenable subject and develop the technique to manage it.  Gerald Berkowitz

(Bye) Polar   Space @Venue 45         ***
A fourteen year old girl dressed in a hospital robe stands in a spotlight and describes a tragic scene. This girl, who suffers from bipolar disorder, narrates her story, taking us through her ups and downs and how this affects her immediate family. To begin with Jane (Amy Tollyfield) is engaging, speaking with a tone and pace that effectively reflects the depressive side of being bipolar. Unfortunately, as the piece goes on, the style becomes repetitive and fails to explore the full scale of the disorder in a short 50 minutes, incorporating a questionable dramatic device towards the end. We are introduced to a large number of under-developed characters throughout, which appear fleetingly, whilst the spotlight on Jane becomes increasingly (and rather controversially) negative. What succeeds in this new play are the monologues, although the final speech from the father disappoints in its delivery, a potentially moving moment which fails to connect. Mental illness is a topic regularly covered in theatre and this particular production boasts nothing new. The research is there and the writing is satisfactory but some elements lean towards the melodramatic, heightened by sometimes over-acted performances. This is an intense show with occasional moments of insight into the disorder, but the relentless nature of the play means there is rarely a relief from the tension. Georgina Evenden

The Cage   Pleasance Dome        ****
Christmas Eve. A chatty, charming bloke engages the audience. There’s a whiff of a classic whodunit in Jack’s polished tones, artfully withholding information, subtly tantalising. Sure enough, a revolver appears his hand. Loaded. But as Jack reassuringly purrs, we can trust him. Can we? Announcing that he wishes “to stop the pain” the action abruptly plunges into a high-octane exploration of Jack’s obsessions, his intended ‘gift’ for his ex-fiancee and former best friend at deadly odds with the seasonal spirit. Writer Dugald Bruce-Lockhart gives his protagonists enough razor-sharp dialogue to consistently turn things on their emotional head, conspiring to break down the wall with the audience, in the process making us unsettlingly complicit in what transpires. As the manipulative Jack, Bruce-Lockhart unnervingly merges affable public school veneer with the seething venom that drives him, while Penelope Rawlins is compelling as the intelligent ex who left him behind at the altar and is now desperate to move on. John Sackville neatly encapsulates the dilemma of the best friend caught up in it all. This is a bit of a mixed bag, however, since the production threatens to founder over Bruce-Lockhart’s script which contains an excellent premise yet is several rewrites away from completion. Spot-on characterisation is here, as is snappy, provocative dialogue, but a convincing internal structure is lacking, the timeframe is wobbly and most of the plot demands a huge leap of faith logic-wise. Luckily Richard Baron’s strong direction and this ripping cast carry things off with panache, in the process rescuing a play that deserves to be rescued.   Nick Awde

Simon Callow in Shakespeare The Man From Stratford   Assembly Hall            *****
With a text by Jonathan Bate, this solo vehicle for Simon Callow smoothly and evocatively blends biographical facts about William Shakespeare of Stratford with apposite quotations from the plays and poems, suggesting how the life inspired the art and the art can enrich our understanding of the life. Noting for example that the schoolboy Shakespeare would have been immersed in the rules and principles of classical rhetoric, Callow then cites illustrative examples from the plays and moves on to a full-blast recitation of Marc Antony's funeral oration. Shakespeare's marriage inspires quotations from Venus, Romeo and Rosalind, the political background of the 1590s is reflected in speeches from Richard II and Henry V, and so on. While some of what Bate and Callow present as biographical fact is really debatable conjecture, the conclusion that this man with (possibly) these experiences wrote these words is satisfyingly convincing, Bate putting his Shakespeare concordance to good use in finding relevant and illustrative citations for each stage in the biography. And of course an afternoon in Callow's company, with the actor clearly enjoying the opportunity to alternate between charming raconteur and rafter-rattling thespian in the grand style is thoroughly entertaining.  Gerald Berkowitz

Susan Calman   Underbelly           ***
Drawing together a Glaswegian, Radio 4 and a lesbian following, former lawyer turned comedian opens her show with a suggestion that she should be sponsored for facilitating such an unusual audience bonding opportunity. And bond they do in a shared appreciation of Calman’s humour which combines whimsicality with wit and self-mockery with sex to produce a set on mortality. Prompted by mid-life crisis and a recent incident of ‘dying’ on a stage in Paisley, Calman wrote her own obituary, which she dissects here for our entertainment. Being only 4 feet 11 inches tall, she attributes much of her attention-seeking behaviour to a Napoleon complex, but then she does add quite a disarming grin to her delivery which makes you turn a deaf ear to those jokes that don’t fully apply to the Calman demographic you happen to belong to. Eventually, she also makes sure that if they fall short of true bonding, her audience are rewarded with at least a sense of empowerment. As a result, you might just find yourself having been roped into a fictional darts competition or temporarily immortalised as an ice cream inventor. Duska Radosavljevic

Cambridge Footlights   Pleasance Dome          *
Something doesn’t seem right about Cambrige Footlights sketch troupe Good For You. They have a good performance space, a nicely designed set, plenty of audience and a TV display to play with. But even with all these advantages over other university sketch troupes, they seem to lack the one thing that comparable groups have. Talent. The show runs in a standard sketch format interspursing longer sketches with quick one liners to keep the pace up. For the most part these shorts are well timed and maintain a good dynamic of light hearted sillyness in between their more aggressive main sketches. The larger sections are a strained mix of well devised and clearly thought out pieces to Pythonesque sections that don't quite work. While there are fantastic moments from Chaz Slazenger, an insane business renovator and the unknown company Frink, other sketches lack the overall tone of the show, feeling very forced and out of place. Worse, these segments are at times lost in translation as some members of the cast corpse during scenes, trip over during changes and at one point change accent mid-sketch. The stage lights do nothing to help this as often the cast are not face-lit, even when delivering lines. On top of this the TV had a tendancy to distract from what was occuring on stage, acting more as a gimmick then something wholly intergrated into the show. Overall, the Footlights sketch troupe fail to raise themselves above the standard wash of comedy groups available at the Fringe, much less the university sketch performers. I would have to say avoid this, if you know what's good for you. Chris CJ Belfield

Cambridge Medics Revue   C Venue          *
Very clever medical student revues were a staple of the fringe in its early decades, usually, for some reason, given terribly punning titles based on films, like (and these were real) A Back Passage To India and A Pox On The Lips Now. They died out about twenty years ago, giving rise to the hope that young doctors-to-be were focussing on their studies, but now comes a Cambridge company, following tradition with a show titled Exorcyst. That, unfortunately is just about their only connection to the glory days. One hopes this crew are good doctors, because they're not impressive as comic writers or performers. Almost none of their mercifully brief sketches is funny, either working from a premise that proves to have no joke at all in it, like the annoying nervous guy or the song about conkers, or being significantly older than anyone in the cast, like the psychiatrist on the couch. At least two in the cast are all but inaudible beyond the third row (and when they're in a sketch together, it's a washout), and no one in the cast can sing the several unfunny songs. A couple of brief bits, like the engagement ring sketch and the dragging leg, show a nicely skewed sense of humour, but they're not enough to save this disappointing show.  Gerald Berkowitz

Cannes   Sweet Grassmarket         ****
Excellently executed, this sit-comesque comedy makes for an entertaining afternoon. Surprisingly professional for an amateur show, the text is skilfully delivered, demonstrating a developed understanding of comic timing. The rhythm and pace grab your attention whilst the energy on stage doesn’t let it go. If you like The Inbetweeners then you’ll love Tom, the protagonist of this story, who could easily be mistaken for Will. The rest of the company are also well cast and equally as talented, each bringing a new plate of funny to the table whilst working coherently as an ensemble. There are minor flaws with the performances but each is easily forgiven for the pure wit and clever construction of the writing. There are unpredictable twists and restraint from slipping into guaranteed-laugh stereotypes; each character comes with a full scale of personality. What is different about this comedy is the depth to the piece; it is surprisingly poignant in its subject matter and although this is framed with a rather silly and basic story line, the questions it provokes are unavoidable. If you’re looking for an original show that will make you laugh without sacrificing meaning, then this is a show for you. Cannes is a rare treat in the amateur spectrum and certainly not one to be missed.  Georgina Evenden

Cape Academy of Performing Arts   Zoo Roxy         ****
The Cape Academy of Performing Arts have arrived at the fringe with a selection of physical theatre and contemporary and classical dance to showcase some of South Africa's up-and-coming talent. CAPA have brought a large and varied troupe, and, although some are clearly more capable than others, the talent is unmistakable. Wonderfully varied, the show presented an impressive range of styles and skills. The mesmerising collaborations on stage were only occasionally disrupted by the sheer number of performers, resulting in obvious backstage difficulties. The contemporary jazz was sensationally seductive and the physical retelling of South African poet Andrew Buckland’s Feedback was incredibly bold, performed by Carmen Lotz and Mila Di Biaggi with impressive energy and verve. The most notable performance was an original and refreshing piece called U.S. Travellers. Choreographed by Michelle Reid to a remix of Hans Zimmer’s original score for Sherlock Holmes (2009), this playful piece utilised umbrellas and suitcases to great effect, creating a captivating traveller’s tale. By no means flawless, the show contained remarkable talent, with the more mature dancers giving engaging performances deserving of a professional troupe.  Kris Lewis

Nathan Caton  Pleasance       ****
Nathan Caton has much to thank his family for. His debut comedy show a year ago was entirely indebted to their collective disapproval of his career choice of comedy over architecture. One by one they each got a snap shot portrayal in Caton’s show - from his youngest brother to his aunts, and all the way to his grandma Stephanie who in the 1960s left the Caribbean to settle in England. Caton’s success helped to soften most of them, apart from Stephanie that is. Revolving around a post-gig rebuke from his grandma, Caton’s latest show is basically an excuse for a bit more of the same kind of material that helped to make his show last year. The fact that even some of the jokes sound familiar is not so much of a problem as he is a skilled raconteur and will always make his connection with the audience seem fresh and unique. My worry is what happens after the difficult second show is out of the way? We will be keeping our ears to the ground. Meanwhile if you missed Caton last year, here is a brilliant chance to catch up. 
Duska Radosavljevic

Cautionary Tales   Zoo Roxy         *****
If you pick your nose your brains will fall out. Or so I was told with extraordinary vim and vigour from this company of Burtonesque juveniles. In a stage adaption of Hilaire Belloc’s stories, Newbury Youth Theatre engages a variety of techniques to tell their gruesome tales. Whilst the show is principally aimed at young children, the mixture of toilet humor and wit was so superb it had me crying with laughter. Indeed this very accomplished youth company present such a gem of a show that the whole family will enjoy it start to finish. As the young actors run amok amongst the beautiful gothic set one might notice some failings that are only forgiven because of the company’s age. However watching these stories presented by such a young cast has a much more important effect. It is clear that so many of the ideas on stage where devised by the actors themselves which adds a wonderful authenticity. Watching the children depicting their own downfall, in their own way, makes the experience much more gruesome. It also serves to rather delightfully undermine the sense of conformity usually inherent in such tales. A wonderful achievement.  Ashley Layton

The Changeling   Underbelly         **
An immortal being, the titular Changeling has chosen to inhabit a human body to enjoy all the perks that are part and parcel of mortality, including the comparatively brief lifespan. When a man collapses in the street, Bernard, already outcast by his 'changeling' status, chooses to help him despite learning that the invalid, Fred, is suffering from the more-than-mundane malady of having a plant grow inside him. Set in the year 2020, University of the Arts London Drama Society's production of The Changeling is a bizarre and confusing tale of the importance of friendship. A collaboration between students from Wimbledon College of Art and actors from East 15 Acting School, it wouldn't be unacceptable to assume this show would be brimming with talent. Unfortunately, the play feels somewhat diluted, and falls short of ever establishing a real connection with the audience. Accompanied by live music from the band Allen's Grand Day Out, this multi-media performance spreads itself too thin, poorly attempting to combine projections and puppets without ever truly utilizing either to full effect. Occasionally we are shown moments of great potential, where fluid physical theatre is successfully combined with the live music, allowing us to briefly believe in this absurd world. Sadly, these moments are fleeting, and the majority of the play is too timid to carry off this far-fetched plot.  Kris Lewis

Chortle Student Comedy Award Final   C Plaza          ****
This year’s finest student comedians battled it out last night for the acclaimed Chortle Student Comedy Award, brilliantly compered by Kiwi Jarred Christmas. The nine finalists were Ed Patrick, Emerald Paston, Ian Smith, Matt Rees, Matt Richardson, Matthew Winning, Max Dickens, Nicholas Cooke and Phil Wang. Matt Richardson had the unenviable task of going first, which showed in his frantic delivery. Admirably, Richardson gave a confident and well structured set. The only female finalist, Emerald Paston performed comedy songs focusing on her misguided love life. Charming and pretty, Paston easily won the crowd but failed to rack up the laughs. Ian Smith was a confident comic that quickly established a good relationship with the audience, giving a funny and sensitive set on his childhood. 2009 Chortle finalist Max Dickens performed an off-beat set with delightfully absurd humour, guzzling milk and highlighting Mr. Blobby’s racist tendencies. Runner up Matt Rees won the audience over with his vulnerable underdog routine, taking time to highlight his uncanny resemblance to Martin Clunes. Despite having performed just twice before, Rees showed great skill in both his writing and delivery. Clearly wracked by nerves, Rees either performed the single greatest piece of ‘relief comedy’ I’ve ever seen, or nearly had a genuine breakdown onstage. Bolstered by the audience’s cheers, Rees brought the house down when he delivered his final punch line with the timed patience of a professional. Phil Wang came across as an experienced and well-timed comic, clearly a favourite from the moment he set foot onstage. Wang gave a bold set that belittled McIntyre, skilfully weaving modernisms with mockery. Rounding off with the ukulele, Wang performed a song hilariously describing his misfortune in love. An intelligent comic that worked the audience perfectly, Wang was the obvious and deserving winner.  Kris Lewis

The City and Iris  Zoo Roxy      
*****
There is a wave of samey shows around at the moment that build on Lecoq-inspired drama school techniques of doing woodland animals, trees, flopping all over each other or clambering over each other’s backs, with most taking this into ho-hum East European fairytale territory. Glass-Eye’s genius is to take all these elements, turn in the opposite direction and throw them up into the air to create a thoroughly contemporary urban tale that winningly combines physical storytelling with authentic drama. Pretty, pleasant but incredibly introverted, Iris is a librarian with an unusual phobia. After a panic attack when being fitted as a child with glasses to correct mild myopia, she fears to take the eyewear off and so, behind its narrow frame, she hides from the world. Each morning her bedroom comes to life as around her the performers create her alarm clock, radio station, washbasin and clothes on hangers. They become the trees and ducks she passes on the way to work, sleepy commuters on the metro, quirky readers at the library, neat books catalogued on the shelves. Then one day she awakens to discover that things are not quite what they seem as she finally focuses on the quirky yet loving world in which she actually lives. And, like Alice in Wonderland, things just get curiouser and curiouser. Expertly directed by Cath Johnson, this seven-strong ensemble – Julia Correa, Natalia Chami, Klas Lagerlund, John-Michael Macdonald, Txema Perez, Jill Rogati. Cecilie Solberg –combine to create a touchingly comic show for all audiences. Such is their timing and pacing, I suspect The City and Iris will be easy to expand beyond its one-hour length into a version that would grace any stage in the UK or overseas.  Nick Awde

Closest To The Moon   Pleasance Dome            ****
In one of the most intimate venues, One Two Productions unveil a work in progress with tremendous potential. In this original musical, the company explores the impulse, the action, and the consequences of pledging to climb Mount Everest. With classical inspirations from Rodgers & Hammerstein, and modernist comparisons to Bertholt Brecht and Kurt Weill, the tone is broad, direct, and simply pitch-perfect. The chorus are dressed in white, and a husband and wife enter the stage in mountaineering wear. We learn why he wants to ascend that height, not only ‘because it’s there’ but because to get to that peak is the closest to the moon by walking. The cast are consistent, with Melanie Bell providing the much needed heart in the production. Claire McKenzie, the composer, has created something incredibly difficult to work with, never slipping into easy chord changes or expectant ternary structures. The cast sound classically trained, and their choral harmonies occasionally sound like hymns. With interweaving narrative melodies that could almost be deemed erratic, it’s almost like it was composed from a stream of consciousness. However it needs to have a greater sense of direction. Darting from a definition of hypoxia to a wife shopping for groceries is distractingly off-putting. Perhaps the final song’s hooks, the most West End friendly 'I Want To Be More', could be incorporated suggestively throughout the score to achieve cohesive unity. Classically modern should be an oxymoron, but it describes this in-development musical perfectly.  Joe Morgan

Comedy Biscuit   Pleasance         ****
From obscure drinking games to the explosive, utterly mental finale everything about Bristol Revunions' show highlights top notch comedy. It is well concieved, with a couple of quickfire sketches in between longer set pieces which really emphasise the absurd direction the show is taking. Each sketch is delivered with excellent timing and every individual displays a professional level of performance skills, from voice and character acting to some really quite delightful singing talents. Snappy, simple costume changes really help to pull this off. The troupe is well balanced with all of the players able to demonstrate funny individual and group performances, though at times sketches do seem to be dominated by one or two of the actors. Towards the end of the show some of the individual sketches seem a little strained but the ideas are still well scripted. The comedy itself is the sort of thing you would see on late night BBC 3, displaying their ability to play off of expectation with unforgivably absurd situations making for some lovely set pieces, but like the late night shows on tv its result is quite a niche audience appeal, most likely students. Regardless of this the show is entertaining, fast paced and most importantly, funny. Well worth a watch if you're about at the courtyard at 11pm.  Chris CJ Belfield

The Conical Decline of Everything  The Space@Jury's Inn    ***
Aspiring playwright Miranda Prag takes issues of oppression and political change as her main inspiration in this Orwellian three-hander. There are moments of well constructed dramatic tension aided by a good deployment of repetitive ritualised action on stage.  However, the portrayal of political oppression and industrial exploitation in a fictional dictatorship seems at times to have been based only on an experience of parental control. In other words, Prag appears to want to question attitudes of forbearance and resistance towards oppression without any research and understanding of real political situations where similar attitudes might have been at stake. This puts the play in danger of trivialising a subject which could otherwise be taken very seriously. Performed by the playwright together with Abie Rahman and Sarah de Quidt, the piece does not suffer from a lack of dedication and enthusiasm. An outside eye may have helped to tone down a tendency to overact which at times afflicts the entire ensemble. That said, they do have potential, so let’s hope they get some help in achieving it.   Duska Radosavljevic

Nina Conti    Pleasance Dome        *****
Comic ventriloquist Nina Conti's new show is a complete success, and a delight from start to finish, which is especially welcome since her recent big shows have all stumbled in various ways. The problem was that her basic act, of the pretty girl repeatedly embarrassed by her foul-talking monkey doll, was brilliant, but she understandably wanted to move beyond this one running joke and didn't seem able to. Other dummies, other gimmicks all seemed to fall flat, and Monk remained the star of the act. Well, Monk is back, and Nina is so comfortable with him that she can let him interact with the audience and actually seem surprised by his ad libs. But she has also added several new characters, who are all fun and who look like having considerable potential for the act. A sweet old granny with ambitions to psychic powers is delightful, a poetic owl is droll, and a brash New York woman who decides she doesn't like her voice gives Nina the opportunity to run through a selection of alternative accents and personalities for her. A hilarious final twist, turning a couple of volunteers into human puppets, sends everyone out on a high and assures us that Nina Conti is back in top form.  Gerald Berkowitz

Continent  C Venue         ****
A novelist rolls a sheet of A4 onto his typewriter. The rat-a-tat strains of Brazil accompany the tap of the keys as deadline looms. His wife bobs over his shoulder to offer suggestions and sandwiches. Manuscript is rejected by publisher who accepts rival writers who handily offer bribes. Such is the cycle of our literary hero’s life until one day everything starts to go right… Armed with just five chairs, two screens, a desk and typewriter, garbed in brightly coloured suits, this vibrant, energy-packed production, courtesy of Japanese company Cava, needs no words thanks to impeccable characterisation, script and a musical soundtrack of samba, salsa and klezmer. Movement veers from Tati to mime and clown slapstick, with the occasional nod to modern dance. The result is an energetic romp from five slick performers – Takaaki Kuroda, Hiroyuki Fujishiro, Kazuaki Maruyama, Shinosuke Hosomi and Yukiko Tanaka -  who wisely refuse to let technique get in the way of the plot. Neat and unexpected twists as the writer’s story comes to life and physically leaps off the typed pages, resulting in a gang of inept hoodlums in a bizarre Russian roulette cheat sequence with a handgun. Reality merges with fiction and vice-versa. Interludes are similarly frequent and funny: golf-mad office cleaners clear up with a 9-irons, musical chairs ensue as the writers avoid handling a script, a Terminator dodges bullets prompting a manic car chase, two men become a bicycle and promptly deflate into flat tyres. Inspired by the Coen brothers’ 1991 film Barton Fink – in spirit rather than content one would judge - this is a show that is as entertaining as it is innovative.   Nick Awde

Cooking For Love  Spotlights @ Merchants' Hall     ****
Unrequited love, songs and cooking, Iwan Dam has hit on a winning combination. The fact that he combines them all in this tale with such conviction is icing on the theatrical cake. The inspiration comes from a chance meeting of Dutch Dam with the French Severine while backpacking in Thailand. Their attraction slowly blossoms over a series of bitter-sweet encounters across the globe, from Holland to the Himalaya. As Dam narrates, he cooks. Occasionally Dam breaks into song, a little disconcerting at first but the pleasing narrative with catchy melodies win you over as the lyrics bring a wry smile of recognition. Each dish becomes a chapter in the tale, each ingredient a sound effect or part of the scenery. People become peppercorns scattered on saffron, crackers crunch footsteps through the snow. A rotating pestle is a bus, fuelled by dashings of sesame oil, exotic mountains are conjured by piles of equally exotic spices. The amazing thing is that you get to eat all of this – nothing goes to waste as everyone gets a taste, with kosher, halal, veggie, all seemingly catered for. Tighter script, direction and more integrated songs, possibly with a simple acoustic guitar accompaniment, all will help set the already mesmerising Cooking for Love up for the world tour it deserves. Colourful, sensuous, touching and funny, one can only imagine how far Dam’s culinary fable might go if supplied with a top-notch kitchen range.  Nick Awde

A Corner of The Ocean  Underbelly    **
Conceptually there is something compelling about the idea underlying this show – a diving accident which seems to have a butterfly wing effect on four women in four different corners of the world. Added to this is the fact that the incident takes place on Christmas Eve, making Jammy Voo’s piece a darker variation of Love Actually – especially when one takes into account that the women featured here are all on the verge of some kind of a personal disaster. Those audience members who remember this Lecoq-trained troupe’s 2007 show Something Blue, will be surprised to see that the girls have ditched their red noses and love hearts for fur accessories, wine and toblerone. Phone rage, self-medication and frantic dancing add more than just a bit of neurosis to the show developed with the help of actor Toby Jones, director Jamie Wood and sound designer Gregory Hall. The delivery of four monologues in parallel works up to a point, but then the idea has its limits and causes unnecessary strain on concentration. Even when the four distant worlds collide, a sense of relevance and consequence is hard to recall.   Duska Radosavljevic

Julien Cottereau: Imagine-Toi   Assembly         ***
The title translates as ‘Imagine!’ and that’s precisely what Julien Cottereau gets you to do with the wordless world he conjures from nothing save the gestures of mime and the inventive sound effects he evokes from mouth and body. He squeaks as he cleans the stage, squelches as he throws an invisible squidgy ball, plays with a yapping invisible dog, gamely asking members of the audience to join in. Meanwhile a growling monster in the corner provides an element of continuity to the string of routines he generates for his wrily smiling clown. However, the meta-language is not always clear, and the children Cottereau brought up onstage – for this show at least – found it hard to follow his non-verbal instructions. Luckily he found a pretty young woman in the audience who uncannily had no such problems in helping him recreate scenes such as posing for the camera, disco dancing, even returning later to the stage to act being a stricken silent movie heroine. Technically accomplished, Imagine-Toi is not quite the show it strives to be. Cottereau works hard but does little to build any real story, communicates badly, is repetitive, and the loud noises and (ironically) invisible monster make this unsuitable for children under-6s. The Umbilical Brothers he is not. And yet the audience clearly thought the complete opposite, appreciated it for what should have been, allowed Cottereau to work their imaginations to the full and so gave one of the most enthusiastic ovations I have seen this festival.  Nick Awde

Could It Be Forever?   Gilded Balloon         ***
In the genre of How Did We Become Grownups? plays, Lucie Fitchett and Victoria Willing imagine a reunion of fifty-somethings who haven't seen each other since their schooldays, when the girls and one of the boys were passionate fans of pop singer David Cassidy. Unsurprisingly the adults discover that their lives since then have not all been happy; a little more surprisingly they realise with hindsight that their lives weren't all that happy back then; and neatly enough the reminiscence allows them to move forward with some hope. The girl who was convinced back then that nobody liked her is still insecure and defensive, the father-fixated one is still trying to please daddy three failed marriages later, and the boy who secretly adored Cassidy is more open now but still resents having to stay in the closet then. This is all pretty standard for the genre, and the play's strengths lie in incidentals, like the recreation of a Partridge Family song and dance routine, scenes of the teenage girls taking turns acting out each other's fantasies of meeting their idol and a moment that neatly characterises each of the kids by showing their different responses to hearing Cassidy sing in person. The cast of six are generally more successful playing the older characters than their younger selves.  Gerald Berkowitz

Cracks   Spaces@Surgeons Hall            ***
A naked man runs over a carpet of dead bodies, sex and death are rife and no one can figure out who the killer is. Like Agatha Christie but with acid. At its best this mad-cap production, set in 1970s San Francisco, comments on the absurdity of modern culture. A jeering admonishment, echoing through the decades, of an absurd and shallow society. As the characters worry more about sex and celebrity than the crimes all around them, one might compare their outlook to the values of our media today. In between the laughs that is. The piece is enjoyable, with laugh out loud moments and occasional suspense, but does suffer from low production values and some niggling flaws. The murder spree follows a drug fuelled party; the characters are either as high as kites or suffering from perhaps the worst come down ever. Comedy potential was squandered by failing to fully engage with this conceit. The presentation of drug use itself is a little messy and unsatisfactory and perhaps more time was needed to establish the narcotic fuelled hysteria that preceded the bloodbath. This piece is at its best when aware of its own absurdity, fitting to its Absurd (capital A) ending. Plenty of laughter was induced by the more heightened performances though there was a dissonance in characterisation amongst the cast. As a result some of the more naturalistic performances felt a bit out of place. Occasionally this juxtaposition was effective but generally it created an uncertain tone for the production. By the end, despite its flaws, the piece does win you over. Ridiculous throughout with a poignant ending. It is, if nothing else, good fun. Ashley Layton

The Crying Cherry  C Venue    ***
This show has to come with the warning about a shameless exploitation of cultural stereotypes applying to Japan. Samurai, geishas, manga, kung fu, tai chi, sushi time and tea time are all deployed here for their utmost comic effect – and by Dutch performers rather than the native Japanese. Once you have got over this particular culture shock however, you are in for a truly exhilarating time.  Heijmans and Bok relate a legend concerning two brothers Anaki and Kitano who are separated as children. Anaki is sent away and raised as a samurai overcoming many trials and tribulations and mighty opponents on his way. There is a prophecy also concerning his brother and a tragic fateful finale, and you must forgive any gaps in my reporting of the narrative as it is all rendered in what sounds like Japanese.  A helpful mix of martial arts, actor-generated sound effects and commedia dell arte will aid understanding and you will certainly never feel neglected as an audience by this super-concentrated duo. On the contrary you are more likely to find yourself invigorated and uplifted, even levitating slightly out of the venue well after midnight.   Duska Radosavljevic

The Cure   C Soco          ****
Imagine My Family focusing on the love between friends, and having witty, acerbic and emotionally intelligent writing. Ok, it’s nothing like My Family, but that’s what makes this a gratifying gem of a production. Michael, played by Joey Batey, is a charismatic lead, an introspective confused genius whose mind is his own worst enemy. His counterpart, Sophie Sibthorpe, is a revolutionary in the making, confrontational and predatory of her female love interests. Their talents are complimented by Michael’s casually offensive father George Potts, and breakout character Jo portrayed by Tamara Astor. Anyone who sees her sweetly psychopathic ramblings will tell you they’re hysterical. Rather than focusing on confusing philosophies, I would have liked to have seen more development in the play’s issues on sexuality and relationships. This was the heart of the production, and certainly had better lines, love and laughter from the audience. The staging and direction is well thought out and professional, utilising an eclectic soundtrack ranging from I Kissed A Girl bubblegum pop to progressive heavy metal. Scene changes are spectacular, playing like a fast forward on a Sky Plus remote. Second year Cambridge student Kat Griffiths’ writing is brave and modern, with classic comic touches and a tragic twist. Ultimately I would like to return to these characters next week on primetime television. Would Thursday at 9pm be good for you?  Joe Morgan

The Dandelion's Story  C Venue  ***
It’s not often you come across a piece of theatre whose main protagonist is animal excrement. In this piece of children’s theatre from Korea, this unlikely subject is given a song and dance treatment in order to teach the youngest generations essential lessons in agriculture. Combining acting and shadow puppetry, the rendition of the story is colourful, imaginative and thoroughly engaging. Both parents and children giggle delightedly at the repeated and earnest declarations of the protagonist’s own identity – ‘I am Doggy Poo’ – whenever he makes a new acquaintance. Jae Hun Lee as an old farmer and Ock Chool Park as Mother Hen deliver memorable episodic performances – the latter one of the best depictions of a chicken I’ve ever seen. Earlier in the show we are taught how even a dry piece of soil can be valuable, so as our main hero struggles to find out what a dog poo is good for, we can be sure of a happy ending. But the spectacular finale is still a bit of a pleasant surprise. And if nothing else, this show will definitely help to answer that difficult question ‘Where do flowers come from?’.   Duska Radosavljevic

Death of a Theatre Critic  Pleasance          *
Death of a Theatre Critic is a play about a director who turns a simple detective story into a ponderous and undramatic philosophical treatise, gets a bad review, and kills the critic. Death of a Theatre Critic is a simple detective story turned into a ponderous and undramatic philosophical treatise, and I'm not sure where that leaves me. The plot about the play, review and murder actually takes up less than half of Joakim Groth's shapeless and meandering drama, which also touches on the director's marital problems, his encounter with a meditating psychotic killer while in prison, and his attempt to produce that guru's unproducible play once he gets out. Each plot development gives the protagonist the opportunity to expound at length on his opinions, and so there is a lot of talk about artists and critics, guilt and innocence, and fresh starts and inescapable fate, little of it interesting and less of it dramatic. Perhaps dispirited by an audience outnumbered by the cast, Marcus Groth gives a performance understated to the point of near-inaudibility.  Gerald Berkowitz

Decky Does A Bronco   Traverse@Scotland Yard                    *****
The tenth anniversary revival of Grid Iron's flagship production is an opportunity to rediscover how exciting and evocative site-specific theatre can be when it's done right. Douglas Maxwell's rueful observation of children at play and the precise moment innocence is lost captures and moves us because we actually see them at play, and the playground setting helps us block out the awareness that we are watching adult actors and enter fully the world of the fiction. Decky shows a group of pre-teen boys in their daily rituals of play around a set of swings. They've invented a particular trick on the swings that all but one have mastered, and it is their teasing of him and his determination to catch up that provide the core of the plot, which is narrated by one of the boys as an adult looking back with the haunted knowledge of what would come next. That double vision is one of the play's strengths, especially as adult versions of the other boys appear and, in one particularly touching sequence, displace their younger selves. But audiences are also likely to be caught up and charmed by the playwright's and director Ben Harrison's passing insights into the way children think and act - how, for example, play can morph without warning into fighting and just as instantly back again, or how nine-year-olds idolise barely more mature twelve-year-olds. In a cast that combine full immersion in their characterisations with admirable physicality, Martin McCormick stands out for effectively juggling two personas in the narrator role.  Gerald Berkowitz

The Degenerates   C Venue         *
The most egregious case of a playwright shooting himself in the foot that I've seen in a long time, Jonathan Shipman's drama would have earned two or three more stars if he had not been struck by an inexplicably suicidal impulse on his last page. We're in a dystopic future in which homosexuality has been demonised to the point that 'sick' men and women are sent to re-education camps to be drugged, beaten or worse, the climax (as it were) of their treatment being the opportunity to prove themselves through 'normal' sex. In a sterile anonymous room are a man and woman facing the final test. She is panicky and resentful, while he is more comforting and determined to give it a try. Because director Owen Phillips and actors Sian Hill and Daniel Street Brown guide us toward sympathising and identifying so well and lead us to hope the couple will either succeed or find a way to escape, the political/moral point is made powerfully and without preaching. And then in an ironic twist of monumental artistic stupidity playwright Shipman completely negates everything that has gone before, undercuts all the actors' hard work, denies the play's moral position and thumbs his nose at us for being so foolish as to have cared as much as we did. Such contempt for his audience, his actors and his subject should in no way be supported.  Gerald Berkowitz

Gary Delaney   Pleasance                  ****
The shorthand label for Gary Delaney would be a less frenetic Tim Vine. Like Vine and unlike almost every other comic on the circuit, Delaney avoids long set-ups and observational anecdotes and instead tells jokes - one-liners, two-liners, puns, self-contained short and snappy laugh-getters, with little connection or transition. They may not all be gems, though he has tested and winnowed his list so that a remarkably high number are, but neither he nor the audience has too much invested in any one, so the occasional dud can just slip by. Unlike Vine, Delaney isn't a relentless rapid-fire machine, but rather gives each gag, whether it's about fast-forwarding through an instructional DVD on foreplay or imagining how hard it would be to stab Uri Geller, a moment to sink in and be enjoyed. Highlights include an Isaac Hayes pub quiz (Who is the man...?) and a self-imposed challenge to come up with a one-liner starting with every letter of the alphabet. Low-keyed enough that we get a sense of the man himself and not just the material, Delaney is an amiable and comfortable presence whose company, and not just jokes, we can enjoy.  Gerald Berkowitz

Derelict     Zoo          **
A disparate group of twenty-somethings take over a vacant house in a squat that they variously plan to use as the base for an artistic commune, an environmental campaign, and provocative revolutionary action, each faction claiming inspiration from the same dead friend (about whom, inevitably, some surprises will eventually be revealed). With several characters following different agendas all jockeying for our attention, and a plot that jolts forward only by sudden arbitrary actions or personality changes, Lara Stavrinou's play too often feels like a group-created student exercise lacking a central controlling vision. The most irresponsible and hedonistic characters abruptly become radical activists, the most idealistic is exposed as the most conventionally bourgeois, the slumming posh girl turns out to have the best and clearest reason for being there, and a couple of others hang around the edges seemingly forgotten by the playwright. The actors seem to place themselves at random around the stage, with performances ranging from exaggerated and external to understated to the point of near invisibility, indicating that part of the play's failure to achieve and hold a shape belongs to director Lotty Englishby.  Gerald Berkowitz

Diary of a Sentimental Killer   Pleasance        ***
It is telling that the credits for this solo show say 'Story by Luis Sepulveda' because it plays like a man reading a short story. It's a good short story, a film noir type tale of a bad day in the life of a professional hitman, but it has not been dramatised or theatricalised in any way. Its rhythms, structure and even grammar are those of fiction, not drama. This puts a special burden on actor Gianpiero Borgia, who must make his storytelling come alive even as he rarely rises from his chair or makes any real attempt to play the various characters, and as engaging as he is, Borgia does remain just a man in a chair telling a story. The hitman of the story has violated professionalism by falling in love, leaving him dangerously distracted when his girl dumps him just as he's starting a new assignment. As the action moves from Paris to Madrid to Istanbul to Frankfurt, back to Paris and on to New York and Mexico City, our hero gets sloppy, blows his cover, gets beaten up, loses his man, finds him again, and I don't have to tell you whose bed he's in. As that summary suggests, the implicit filmscript is already there in the short story, adding to the sense that this theatrical presentation is a detour rather than a logical development.   Gerald Berkowitz

The Difference Betwen Gin and Bacardi   The Hives                *
Awkward entrances and exits, copious monologues and overheard secrets - Front Seat Theatre’s show features all the typical pitfalls of a struggling playwriting debut. Added to this are the woes of being twenty-something – wrong jobs, thwarted dreams, unwanted pregnancies – the main drama revolving around the question of holding onto or letting go of bright hopes for the future. A shared household sofa dominates the set of this piece, representing also an indication of its genre – a cross between Friends, Skins and a British soap opera. Although no playwright is credited, there are attempts at writerly lyricism in some of the monologues. The company of actors is led by a young graduate director Caitriona Shoobridge. There is no indication what the specific aspirations of this group of twenty-somethings actually are, but one piece of advice I would offer them would be to get out more and live life if they still want to make theatre about it. Or just really imagine the possibilities – I’m sure they exceed the subject of alcoholic beverage differences. Duska Radosavljevic

Doctor Faustus   C Venue         ****
This is a pensive, considered, intelligent approach to one of the most classic stories between heaven and hell. For Faustus played here by Benjamin Blyth, fights this battle over a single evening, blinded by his foolishness, curiosity and debilitating loneliness. While some may take an arduous journey on their trip to hell - this convincing and mesmerising Faustus is already there. The level of professionalism conjured up feels unparalleled, with costume and set design aiming for accurate representation. Faustus’ desk sits at the top of the stage, toppling with scrolls of papers, scientific instruments and scribbles of diagrams. We do not leave the entrapped setting of the study once. Throughout the theatre are sprites, dressed in muslin white, who refuse to meet a single gaze. It starts with the summoning of Mephistopheles. He may be a servant to Lucifer, but to Faustus he is like a predatory cat with a condescending smirk, batting his plaything from side to side in its cage before he finally swallows it whole. Mephistopheles controls two spirits like malleable mannequins – bewitching Faustus’ mind to believe that they are fighting for his soul. The chorus do a serviceable job as the blank canvas for the demons presented throughout the play, clear as illusions to pacify Faustus’ manic mind. As Faustus wishes to repent, he begins to strip and lays prostrate on the floor in total submission, and it is well noted that he is already wearing the white muslin pantaloons of the damned. For any Marlowe detractors, the way Blyth performs the ‘perpetual day’ speech could rival any climactic moment seen on the RSC stage. This may not be the most spell-binding production of Faustus - there is no music, much sound, or complex lighting. But for Benjamin Blyth, this is a career making performance.  Joe Morgan

Doctor Faustus   Underbelly         *****
The greatest achievement of The Offshoot's interpretation of Christopher Marlowe’s classic is the seamless integration of physical theatre, live music and classical text, all performed in the dressing of a sinister hall-of-mirrors circus act. As the show begins we are confronted with Faustus alone, adorned in a crisp suit, looking more like former Never Mind The Buzzcocks host Simon Amstell than a renowned German scholar. Indeed, Simon Lewis’ light delivery seems to suggest he would be more comfortable casting quips over spells but as the play develops so does his performance. Likewise Stacey Norris (portraying both ringmaster and Mephistophilis) goes from strength to strength and conducts the ordered mayhem admirably. This is perhaps the best way to describe the style of the show - a chaotic cluster of movement and noise that on close examination reveals meticulous control and timing from this adolescent cast. The extensive hours of rehearsal are evident as the sinners furiously scribe in chalk the terms of Faustus’ bond, pausing to pound the full-stops in time. Another instance of this impressive synchronicity is when Faustus first summons Mephistophilis to a pulsating crescendo of drum-rolls, wailing and flamenco guitar. To talk further about the magical moments would be to spoil the effect of the cohesion and ingenuity of this devised piece. If you are a fan of physicality, spectacle and showmanship, or just want to see some sublime student theatre: do not miss this show. Jamie Benzine

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog   Church Hill Theatre         ***
During the 2007-08 Writer’s Guild strike Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy, began work on his own concept - the musical Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. It became a web series and subsequent cultural phenomenon. But considering that it’s still on the internet means that it ranks along the same notoriety as LOLCats and a dancing fat woman falling off a table. So from computer screen to stage, Guilford High School students must cope with the unique challenges of adapting something internationally adored, and largely ignored. Dr Horrible, originally played by Neil Patrick Harris and here by a promising talent Michael Sullivan, is a super villain in love with a girl named Penny whom he only sees at a Laundromat. But she eventually ends up dating his arch-nemesis, the boisterous hero Captain Hammer. For newcomers the music is a delight and wittily versed. The duet between Horrible and Penny, On The Rise, was a beautiful version ranging from soft dissonance to pleasing harmonies. Sadly the production failed on two sides - it was beset with technical issues, with microphone glitches and glaring projection problems, and it suffered a lack of paraphernalia. Without the context of the original source, I can’t imagine it made a lot of sense for the naive audience member. But for fans of the series, Jim Motes’ directorial choices are part of the theatrical charm, and where the piece drastically improves. The YouTube feel is developed using webcams, and the bank heist has a call back to classic Nintendo games. Joss Whedon was all about regaining a sense of voice, and when Motes used his, it showed phenomenal potential. Joe Morgan

Don't Touch Me There!   Spotlights@The Merchants'Hall             *
Either I have completely lost my sense of humour, or Royal Holloway’s Comedy Society never had one to begin with. To my great relief, after 75 long, unforgiving minutes of “comedy” sketches, the latter rings true. Nothing in this unimaginative show works dramaturgically or coherently and the unoriginal gags fall flat on empty chairs. There is an unnerving sense that nothing is being taken seriously. The lighting and set are minimal, sound non-existent, costume inconsistent and horror of horrors, a line-feeder sits unashamedly visible to the side of the stage. The transitions are sloppy and whispers between cast members are far from discreet as they fail to keep character. The appalling script is delivered with little talent and even less enthusiasm whilst the absence of a strong directorial presence is overwhelming. One wonders if the cast understand any of the comedic elements of the text, let alone comprehend the importance of comic timing. One scene between God and his publisher promises huge potential, but these opportunities are overlooked. Rather, the script often loses its way, occasionally even failing to make basic sense. Without comedy, the whole performance proved to be utterly futile; one can forgive the lack of depth if it provides a few laughs. However, when the houselights come up, I find to my astonishment that I haven’t even cracked a smile. Georgina Evenden

The Durham Revue   Underbelly        ***
Except for last year's dip, Durham has repeatedly outshone Oxford and Cambridge in revue for several years, and the current edition marks a modest upswing which is enough to bring them back into lead position. Their sketches aren't all successful, but enough work to carry the hour. Revealing the source of lift music and considering a doctor who is not a doctor are both fun excursions into unexpected comic territory, and even those sketches that go in predictable directions, like the posh guy's job interview, have legitimate jokes at the end. Vikings, astronauts, jazz and the parents of Jesus and John the Baptists are all topics you might think exhausted, but they find fresh and funny new twists on them. The real key to their success is that every sketch has a real joke or punchline in it. It may not always be a great joke, but it's there, which is more than you can say about too many other sketch shows.  Gerald Berkowitz

The Edinburgh Fridge   Greenside         ****
It is inconceivable that a lustful Sigmund Freud and a man with a fear of beards would ever meet in an expanding, dancing hospital. But at Edinburgh’s quaint Greenside venue on a delightfully warm summer’s evening, they did. In a manner that recalls the principles of Forum Theatre, it was actually the spectators who formed this play. The audience was unexpectedly invited on stage to arrange magnetic words on a giant fridge. Of course, with the presence of children, the resulting phrases were imaginative to say the least. It was then up to Student Improv Nottingham to use three of these phrases as the title, character/relationship and ending of their consequent play. Although the actors began a little tentatively, it was not long before exaggeration and flamboyance took over and an exceptionally entertaining portrayal of Sigmund Freud (Paul Schmidt) emerged. However, the actors were not alone in their feat; a jolly pianist improvised a comic soundtrack according to their every word and a sound technician’s late cues became punch lines of their own. Unanimous laughter soon filled the intimate space and spectators felt so comfortable that some even laughed alone. Next time you see magnetic words stuck to a fridge, try to form an obscure sentence. Then, imagine if it were the title of a play. Hard to fathom and a ludicrously outrageous thought, yet this is exactly what Student Improv Nottingham do every evening. Yasmeena Daya

En Route  Traverse       ****
En Route is part of a new genre that might be called iPod Art. It comes from the same theoretical stable as Would Like to Meet, which played at the Barbican earlier in the year, though this is much more ambitious and despite a few teething problems, effective. A brief description of the methodology is necessary, as some might argue that this has nothing to do with theatre, although it has been created by theatre practitioners. You are asked to bring along a mobile (cell) phone and provided with an iPod. Following instructions primarily provided by text, but also telephone, iPod and paper (and even a running lady), you go on a strange treasure hunt, where the treasure lies in the hunt rather than at its conclusion. For around 90 minutes, the messages lead you (and three other intrepid travellers) through unknown backstreets of Edinburgh, coming across gems of architecture, passing locals and Festival visitors and encouraging existential reflection. This last pastime is promoted by the audio track, which combines ambient music and instructions with a big dose of New Age wisdom. The journey culminates in a coffee but before that, the ascendancy of a car park staircase leads to an experience that justifies the walk, particularly on a sparkling day like the one where your lucky reviewer found himself en route to a glimpse of Edinburgh heaven. The project was inevitably going to have teething troubles, even after three weeks of meticulous preparation but by the end, a couple of wrong turnings and long waits were forgotten. And what does it have to do with theatre? That is a good debating point preferably over a dram or two of single malt rather than too many tinnies. Philip Fisher

Ernest and the Pale Moon Pleasance  ****  (reviewed at a previous Festival)
Oliver Lansley's new play with Les Enfants Terribles is a highly atmospheric piece of gothic storytelling. Channelling Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James of the Turn of the Screw period, the company produces a compelling and macabre account of obsession, immurement and murder. Directed by Emma Earle, the show has a beautiful, simple set composed of an assymetrical metal frame, figuring a world out of joint. This warped image translates into the story of three characters in a building whose desires turn deadly. Accompanied by accordion music, the sounds of a metronome and cello, the piece is strong on atmosphere, gloomy, beautifully lit and rich in texture. The performers create sound effects onstage, much like companies such as You Need Me and Filter Theatre, demystifying stage illusion at the same time as weaving a narrative spell over the audience. There's a sense of deep traumas contained in some of its images. With some stunning coups de theatre and clever shifts in perspective, text and theatricality intersect in the work of a company very adept at showing how physicalized storytelling is at the heart of some of the best theatre around. William McEvoy

An Evening With Dementia  Spaces@The Radisson       ****
Probably the best measure of this show’s success was the number of young people in the audience giggling delightedly and jumping to their feet in a standing ovation at its end. Trevor T. Smith, a one-time member of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop and a regular TV face in the 1980s, has booked himself into what seems to be a predominantly student venue and it is working a treat.  I imagine that the subject of his show – old age and dementia – carries all sorts of benefits with it. If nothing else, forgetting one’s lines and repeating oneself is thoroughly justifiable. But Smith is a consummate professional both as an actor and as the author of his script. Opening with a succession of quips and gags masquerading as tips and tricks on how to deal with memory loss, Smith’s narrative culminates in a searing satire on a society which has become demented by ‘forgetting the memory of their humanity’. There are moments of poetry and playfulness here too, and as a self-confessed former thespian, our hero will turn his thoughts to the meaning of the shared experience too. A gem that will be remembered for a long time. 
  Duska Radosavljevic

An Evening With Elsie Parsons   Dome          ***
Richard Cameron's play introduces a pair of mediums (media?), almost certainly charlatans, as they go through their routine of invoking spirit guides with vague messages for someone on the audience. The woman sometimes channels a music hall singer while the man has across-the-divide chats with Ivor Novello, so proceedings are punctuated by the occasional song. But then she begins getting visions she didn't expect and can't control, about a little girl in peril and a young woman in distress, much to the confusion of her colleague. Who her spirit guides really are and what the story is that they're actually trying to protect her from is eventually revealed, in a manner that makes this a tale more of psychology than parapsychology, and yet which finds a place in its working-out for the chicanery of the chastened faker. The seventy-minute play meanders in too leisurely a fashion through the mild satire of what ought to be just an opening sequence and takes too long to find its real subject and tone, but the final twenty minutes are engrossing and satisfying drama. Mike Burns captures the easy oiliness of the old pro, while Lorraine Chase juggles what amount to several personalities with conviction.  Gerald Berkowitz

Fair Trade  Pleasance Dome      ***
Prominantly displaying the imprimatur of sponsor and Executive Producer Emma Thompson, this simply-constructed play by Shelley Davenport and Anna Holbek tells the stories of two victims of sexual trafficking. Elena was brought to London from her Albanian village by an old friend who then announced that she had to work off the inflated cost of her passage. Samai was offered escape from an African refugee camp by a man who then raped and beat her before putting her on the game. Their stories, based on interviews with the actual women, are dramatised and presented with a simple earnestness that suggests the sort of theatre-in-education that comes with discussion guides for teachers, though there is no denying the power of the underlying facts and the theatrical effectiveness of occasional scenes, as when the girls fill a wall with the numbers of their clients, or the faceless men march through in an unending mechanical parade. Though all but inaudible beyond the first few rows of the audience, Sarah Amankwah conveys the fragility and hopelessness of Samai, while Anna Holbek captures an inherent strength in Elena that encourages us to hope she will survive her ordeal.  
Gerald Berkowitz

Fascinating Aida Assembly   ***** 
This may be their fifth annual farewell tour, but who are we to cavil when it gives us another opportunity to enjoy the wit and company of Dillie Keane, Adele Anderson and - in this incarnation - Liza Pulman? If you don't know FA (poor you!), think Tom Lehrer, Flanders and Swann, Noel Coward, Kit and the Widow, but with a sharp female (not necessarily feminist) edge. The current show is a nice mix of new material and old favourites. There's a song about being bored that finds a way to rhyme glumly with Joanna Lumley, and another about the temptation to send mother to the kind of spa in Geneva from which she won't return. One of their very first songs, about the unexpected uses for a pair of tights, is followed by their Gilbert-and-Sullivan-style rapid patter song explaining derivatives and other financial arcania, which is so clever you almost think you understand it. Last year's Bulgarian folk songs have been delightfully updated to skewer current targets, there's a calypso number set in the tropical paradise the Shetland Islands are about to become, and Dillie celebrates the joys of dogging - and yes, their signature anthem about sequins does appear. I could go on just listing the comic songs, but I want to caution you to pay close attention to their quiet little number about friendship, a reminder that we have real songwriters here, as well as skilful and sensitive singers. If you know them you love them, and don't need me to make you want to see them again, so I'll just encourage you to be generous and bring along someone who hasn't seen them before and share the joy. Gerald Berkowitz

The Fastest Woman Alive   C Venue          ****
This fast-paced and intriguing play follows Jackie Cochran in her battle against prejudice as she proves her flying ability to be equal to that of men. Known for her numerous records and firsts, the most notable being that she was the first woman to break the sound barrier, Cochran established herself as a firm leader in women’s rights culminating in the formation of the WASPs (Women Air Force Service Pilots) during World War II. Karen Sunde’s effectively written play is remarkable and efficiently constructed by the Pepperdine University Theatre Department. Feminism reigns in this empowering piece of theatre and I certainly left feeling proud to be a woman. Although feminism is a cause previously dealt with in theatre, the truth on which this play is based is what is inspiring. With strong and insightful performances, particularly from Lauren Randol (Cochran) and Charlotte Ubben (Amelia Earhart), this story is brought to life with focus and vision. The set is minimal, yet integral to the sharp scene changes and Caroline Andrew uses lighting expertly to build atmosphere without jolting the action. The harmonies of the vocals are faultless as is the line delivery. However, at times the performance seems slightly over-rehearsed. Whilst this lack of spontaneity works to illustrate Cochran’s logical and hasty character traits, it also distils the emotion of Cochran when she faces her infertility. Despite this, the ensemble is tight and the images powerful. There are beautiful moments of female camaraderie, specifically between the WASPs. After gaining this insight into the life of such a hugely influential woman as she struggled with the balance of career and family we leave pondering the ultimate female-specific question; what does it mean to be a woman? This show is like Top Gun for women; men might not understand the fascination, but its effect is undeniable.  Georgina Evenden

Fat, Bald and Loud Laughing Horse  ****  (reviewed at a previous Festival)
- To which one might add inventive, versatile and funny. American Craig Ricci Shaynak proves equally adept at character comedy, observation and improvisation in this unassuming but winning hour. Appearing first in the guise of a security guard outside his venue, he puts each audience member through a separate and equally funny security check. Finally allowed into the room, we get a half-hour of fresh takes on such familiar subjects as family life and school embarrassments. The fact that his parents were both chain smokers gets a running gag of its own, with the poor-me quality of such reminiscences never tipping over into bathos. For the last twenty minutes of his act Shaynak brings out the Giant Wheel of Accents, takes on some improvisation suggestions and delivers them in the voice the spinning wheel dictates. It's a clever way of demonstrating his comic versatility and builds to a satisfying climax when his final improv runs through every accent on the wheel. There's nothing cutting-edge about Shaynak's material - indeed, an American comic of fifty years ago could have done virtually the same act. But he does it well, and he is funny. Gerald Berkowitz

Feathers   C Central         **
Eliza Power has rewritten A Streetcar Named Desire and set it in north London, but Power is not as good a playwright as Tennessee Williams, and Feathers is not a very good play. A couple loaded down with problems of their own take in the wife's mentally fragile sister and inevitably a lot of bad things happen, with the harm and the blame spread pretty evenly all around, leaving just about no one - with the possible exception of the Mitch figure, the sister's putative boyfriend - for the audience to sympathise with. That, more than an overfull and cluttered plot and sluggish direction by Catherine Robey, is Power's biggest error, not giving us anyone to feel for or care about, leaving us with a play full of unpleasant people who we may feel deserve everything they get. Robey directs them that way, with only Phoebe Brown as the sister and Rubin Mayo as the boyfriend showing the odd moment of humanity.  Gerald Berkowitz

Mick Ferry: The Missing Chippendale   Just the Tonic           ****
Mick Ferry announces that he’s fat. Certainly the beer belly looks impressive from the back row of this cramped comedy cave. He also shares the fact that last year at Edinburgh he played a fleapit sharing a paper-thin wall with the Chippendales, who were enjoying a sell-out run. Night after night the screaming audiences for the stripping muscleheads made the comic’s life a misery. He vowed revenge and promptly went to a gym, only to be told he was too unfit to join. Without breaking sweat he somehow manages to link up fat denial with tackling a Chippendale plus midget companion in a pub – and a load of other subjects in between. What strikes you as the laughs mount up is that under the lager-lout Northern bravado there lurks a seriously sensitive soul and there’s a lot more going on than you might at first think. Ferry admits to doing dumb things like shout out celebrities in the street as he passes them, like a bemused ex-Scotland manager George Burley in the Meadows, but makes a pork pie look sensible. There’s a jaw-droppingly gritty account of his investigation into the world of male strippers and yet his paean to Greggs is as poetic as you’ll get.  Nick Awde

The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East   Space@the Radisson            *****
You know that sensation, when you don’t want something to end? Like a great book that you start reading less and less so as not to reach the last page. The Fever Chart, performed by Warwick University Drama Society, had precisely this effect on me. It stemmed from the fact that with every character’s story I was learning something new. Of course, it was the superb actors that stimulated such intrigue. Their deep understanding of the protagonists' lives made their portrayals hauntingly lifelike. It often felt so real, that I could easily have been sitting in Iraq, Israel or Gaza. To be able to conjure the atmosphere of the Middle East in such a bare and intimate space is a sign of great talent. Several hard-back books, symbolising the literacy and civilisation that the region was once renowned for, were the production’s most evocative and innovative props. First they represented pigeons and freedom, in the next story they were lined up to resemble enclosed animal cages and finally they were pushed, falling like dominoes only to get swept aside. There is no doubt that this sequence of images is a metaphor for the collapse of these societies and the relentless hostilities that often appear to be swept under the rug by the rest of the world. At one point, the actors on-stage began to breathe deeply, echoed by those sitting off-stage. Spectators seemingly found that they could not help but join in and soon everyone was breathing in unison. Amongst all the talk of prejudice, death and aggression, it suddenly dawned on me just how fragile life - anyone’s life - is.  Yasmeena Daya

Figs in Wigs   Space@Venue 45                ****
This scintillating synergy of comedy and sixties avant-garde is a rib-tickling, heart warming delight. Somewhere between contemporary performance and pastiche, the piece principally explores the search for love. Eleven deliciously watchable performers present a host of psychedelic and plebeian characters. Their exploits, presented through a mix of choreography and text are narrated by a voice straight out of a Coronet Instructional Film. The performances, which alternate between non-matrixed and heightened characterisations, radiate a sense of earnest purity. This sense of innocence and naivety is augmented by the use of French Yé-yé music. Tracks such as France Gall’s Le temps de la rentrée add to the bizarre and bemusing atmosphere, whilst making these odd characters all the more endearing. The choreography is simply wonderful. There is a quirky quality to the movement which bypasses any attempts at classical technique. Every performer moves with an understated, insouciant dexterity. Considering the level of social commentary in the piece the cast do well to avoid any sense of pretension. Moving through a series of capricious skits the show reaches a captivating and superbly effective dénouement. Perhaps not to everyone’s taste but without doubt a quintessential fringe production.  Ashley Layton

The Final Moments   Hill Street            ****
The Final Moments is an opera sung entirely in Chinese. Qi Li plays the part of Neomi, a woman whose misfortunes have shaped her life and the only character in the story. Joining her on-stage are pianist, Weijie Li, and cellist, Xiaolu Li, whose duets are a delight to listen to. Qi Li takes command of the stage from the very moment she steps out of the audience. Dressed from head to toe in red and black, her character’s fiery and sensual nature is immediately apparent. Her versatile voice copes with her score’s unexpected leaps and surprising notes with apparent ease. A highly animated performance, Qi Li is engaging and absorbing, even to a spectator who does not understand Chinese. Still, to help the audience follow the story line, English and Chinese sub-titles are projected onto a small patch of black curtain on the side of the stage. As helpful as this was, it would have strengthened the production as a whole if the subtitles were revealed at the same time as the relevant words were sung or spoken. The expressive music also aids the audience in understanding Neomi’s emotions. Each time we return to the sorrowful opening scene, in which Neomi is drowning her sorrows with alcohol, a morose leitmotif can be heard. However, the music is not always so predictable. Qi Li’s songs vary from an early upbeat performance about ice cream to a powerful finale questioning society and its ethics sung in her chilling final moments before us. Yasmeena Daya

Firing Blanks   Underbelly               ****
A park bench. Ducks. A man. A teenager. And why should this be different from any other park bench two-hander? A left-field subject obviously, plus the fact that the audience are the ducks. Richard has just been diagnosed as having the condition of the play’s title. He has a lot of sperm, he assures himself, stopping by the bench, it’s just that none of them have any strength.  Holly, a teenager throwing bread into the pond can’t help overhearing and is soon displaying remarkable clarity in pointing out the pros and cons of a low sperm count. These unlikely strangers continue the conversation of the next few weeks as Richard’s concerns now turn to whether he and his wife should go for artificial insemination and all the complications this may cause his future kid. Most of the time the two feed the ducks or, when one is absent, talk to the ducks – in both cases us, which removes any unnatural device of artificial monologue (both characters would clearly talk to ducks, in private). Without once reducing the naturalness of the scene, Tom Spencer’s script cleverly plays with time and location to help us visualise Richard’s conundrums. Infertility lends itself to bold farce or harrowing suspense, but cleverly he has created a gentle comedy that nails all the issues while letting us lie back and enjoy the interaction between the protagonists.  Robin McLoughlin is convincing as the confused Richard, and Holly Beasley-Garrigan wins you over as the cheery Holly. Linking the scenes and underpinning the dialogue is James Hill’s moody guitar, which, combined with Spencer’s sensitive direction, makes this a thoughtful yet feel-good piece of theatre that deserves investment to expand it into a full-length work. Nick Awde

First Love    Pleasance        ***** 
The key to Samuel Beckett monologues is recognising that there's a real human being in there. He may be strange or damaged or even mad, but you have to find him and his voice, or else you may as well be reciting meaningless abstract poetry. Conor Lovett finds the man whose voice speaks Beckett's 1945 short story and presents him to us fully formed even before he says a word. The slight stoop, the sideways stance and the wavering eye contact introduce us to a man for whom human contact is an infrequent and, if not actually painful, at least not always welcome experience. Once he begins to speak and we catch on to thought patterns like being halfway through reminiscence before realising it may not actually have happened, or randomly changing details or names because facts have no monopoly on his concept of reality, we are ready for the tale he has to tell. His love story turns out to involve a woman who suddenly appeared on his favourite park bench. Because she bothered him, he thought about her; because he thought about her he concluded that he must be feeling that thing other people call love. What follows is a minimalist misadventure that is the purest Beckett, with Lovett capturing every nuance, every bizarre laugh and every tiny tragedy, sharing and communicating his absolute understanding of the text. It is easy to do Beckett poorly and get away with it, but the opportunity to see him interpreted this well is too rare to be missed.  Gerald Berkowitz

Tim Fitzhigham   Pleasance     **** 
Tim Fitzhigham didn't do anything bizarre and dangerous this year, unless you count getting married and having a daughter, so his show is in part a look back at some of his past adventures, like rowing the English Channel and treking a Spanish desert dressed as Don Quixote. It's his daughter's toddler bravery that makes him wonder whether she has inherited his foolhardy gene, and that sends him looking back at the misadventures of some of his ancestors. The result is a somewhat more loosely structured hour than some of Tim's previous outings, and all the better for that. Not tied quite so closely to his slide show, Tim can digress, ad lib and meander around his topic in entertaining and unpredictable ways that on any given night may or may not take him past Easter eggs, zebra crossings, inappropriate plaques for hospital walls and an exploding West Indian loo. This night a foul-up with his pre-show recorded music inspired him to play us in himself with a couple of silly guitar-accompanied songs, and that led to some unscripted jokes and audience interplay that nicely set the mood for what was to follow. It would be a shame if fatherhood tamed the Very Strange Person Tim has always been, but this show is evidence that he hasn't lost his skewed view of reality and his ability to be very, very funny. Gerald Berkowitz

Flanders and Swann Pleasance   ****    (Reviewed at a previous Festival)
This salute to the duo who pioneered genteel song-and-patter comedy in the 1950s is a delight that does not rely on nostalgia or even knowledge of the originals for the fun, though I must admit I was surprised that everyone in the audience, young and old, could join in the chorus of the Hippopotamus Song ('Mud, mud, glorious mud...') without prompting. Perhaps it's one of those things, like the Goon Show voices and the Dead Parrot sketch that have entered the British DNA. Duncan Walsh Atkins, quietly droll at the piano, and Tim Fitzhigham, boisterously welcoming at the microphone and singing in an attractive baritone, take us through a dozen F&S classics, from the aforementioned Hippo through Have Some Madeira M'Dear, Transports of Delight and I'm a Gnu. Tim's intersong chatter is new but fully in the F&S mode, taking on the blimpish persona of a Kensington Tory deigning to work alongside his south-London accompanist, and the moment in which he plays a french horn concerto by blowing into one end of a music stand is truly remarkable. All together now, 'I'm a gnu, a gnother gnu....' Gerald Berkowitz

Flesh and Blood and Fish and Fowl  Traverse at St. Stephen's         ****
In this rare case, you can entirely judge the show by its title. Surprisingly illustrative, it gives you an inkling of both the content and the form of this visceral absurdist clowning show in the centre of a taxidermic installation. But you will have to bear with it to get there. Originally made in 2008 as a site specific piece for a disused pharmacy in Philadelphia, Geoff Sobelle and Charlotte Ford’s piece which at first looks like a comic take on office politics and consumerism gradually transforms into a dark ecological satire.   Lecoq-trained – and previously appearing in Edinburgh in 2007 with a Beckettian clown show All Wear Bowlers – Sobelle and Ford are both riveting performers who can maintain the audience’s interest in mundane detail for unusually long periods of time. There are variations to this effect too with some audience members in fits of hysterical laughter and others simply transfixed. Having earned your trust, affection and attention, the duo proceed to take you towards their political message with apocalyptic urgency. And this is where you are on your own. Quite literally.  Duska Radosavljevic

Flor de Muerto   Bedlam           ***
Gomito Productions use speech, music, mime and solid and shadow puppetry to tell a sweet and heartwarming fable of growing up and coming to grips with loss. It doesn't all work, for easily correctable technical reasons, but at its best it has real charm and stage magic. Set in Mexico on the Day of the Dead, the play introduces us to a boy who has been unable to mourn his dead parents and thus is more frightened by the holiday's Halloween-style imagery than reassured. A trio of dead spirits, manipulating puppets of the parents and also doubling as living characters, guide the lad toward the understanding that the holiday's toy skeletons and skulls are meant to make death feel less frightening and thus enable him to visit his parents' graves and begin the process of recovery. Along with the skeleton puppets that communicate the parents' continual presence watching over this world, there are shadow puppet sequences to depict the boy's escapist fantasies and the festival activities he's afraid to join. But the shadows are not visible from everywhere in the audience, and an extended music, light and mime sequence attempting to capture the phantasmagorical quality of the fiesta is lovely but opaque, and a couple of lines from the narrators would help us follow what's going on at this key point in the story.  Gerald Berkowitz

Freefall  Traverse    ***
A man who has suffered a stroke has images and memories flash through his consciousness, allowing him to understand what life it is that he is fighting to hang on to. So there are two stories here - the post-stroke inching forward and the fitting together of the jigsaw pieces that make up the past. Unfortunately Michael West's play doesn't move very far beyond the surface or the clichéd in either half, nor do they bounce off each other in resonant ways. The man's past unsurprisingly proves full of small unhappinesses that continue to haunt him, some ordinary childhood pains and an ordinarily fading marriage, but the play doesn't make them seem worthy of particular attention or sympathy. Meanwhile West is not especially interested in capturing the experience of a stroke victim, as Arthur Kopit did in the similarly-themed Wings, which Annie Ryan's production and Kris Stone's design repeatedly resemble without matching in insight or theatrical inventiveness. So we learn less than we would like about the Now of the play while being disappointed by the banality of the Then. Andrew Bennett generates most of the reality and humanity there is to the play by convincing us that the man's story is meaningful to him, while the rest of the cast skilfully double and treble roles as Everyone Else. Gerald Berkowitz

Fresher: The Musical   Zoo Roxy         ****
At first, three boys and two girls give the impression of archetypes of typical university students. There’s sexually confused Basil, spoiled Ally, posh Rupert, nervous Hayley, and the overconfident Tuck. As the book by Sally Torode develops into a fast paced comedy of wit and contemporary pop culture, Mark Aspinall’s music and lyrics act as emotional guides to their educational journey of life. With relationships blossoming, the characters become developed and far more complicated. The group do a superb job, progressively beginning to convey the individuals they were too afraid to be on first meeting.The set is similar to a cartoonish canvas brought to life steadily by the cast. The primary colours and lack of branding or purpose suggest that these characters will take a paintbrush to form their world around them. Fresher’s score is excellent, the sound of West End classics and the odd Spanish beat, but the music is never original enough to set it apart. While cohesive, too many comparisons to shows like Avenue Q almost seemed to stifle its voice. Its shining moment is a duet reflecting a new found friendship between Hayley and Tuck which is humourously but also beautifully sung, exploring interlocking melodies and complex rhythms. Whenever lyric and music work together like this, it is an unadulterated joy.  The cast's voices harmonise well, and all show possible stage futures. To a recent graduate like myself, Fresher: The Musical was able to convey something very true. We are not who we are on that fake first impression, but gradually become the person we embrace inside of us. Whoever you are, first year student or nostalgic grown up, this will undoubtedly resonate. While not perfect, the potential promises something of the highest calibre in the years to come.  Joe Morgan

Rhod Gilbert and the Cat that Looked Like Nicholas Lyndhurst  EICC  ****  (Reviewed at a previous Festival)
The far from snappy title, Rhod Gilbert and the Cat that Looked Like Nicholas Lyndhurst takes a long time to explain. It doesn't really matter, but to give Wales' top comedian credit, he gets there in a satisfying final flourish. Rhod Gilbert is now a TV star but still obviously relishes his time on the Fringe, lager as always in hand as he chats but more often rails against the constant vicissitudes of his life. Gilbert ignores the many highlights of the last year, exemplified by his presence at Pleasance 1 in front of 400 delighted fans every night (and fiery argument with the Prince of Wales at the Royal variety show). His aggressive style works far better in a bigger space and there is no doubt that the stand-up has hit the big time and deserves it. His topics seem diverse but determinedly inconsequential. Battles with inanimate objects and those who sell them are always favourites. This year, he had the misfortune to need a new washing machine and Hoover, much to the amusement of the audience. His friends also persuaded the Welshman to try Anger Management and hypnosis but thank goodness, they fuelled his comedy rather than killing it. And the Cat? If anyone cares, this was a childhood memory chosen to frustrate a gent in Canterbury. Rhod Gilbert and the Cat that Looked Like Nicholas Lyndhurst is by far the best show that the popular comedian has ever delivered in Edinburgh. If you can't get in, put the promised DVD on your Christmas list. Philip Fisher

The Girl In The Yellow Dress  Traverse      ***
South African playwright Craig Higginson uses the premise of grammar lessons given by an Englishwoman to an African in Paris to explore issues of language, race, gender, obsession, repression, need, neurosis and the possibilities of overcoming all these obstacles. That's a lot to squeeze into a ninety minute two-hander, and it forces Higginson to manipulate his characters into roles and situations that are unlikely or only partly explained after the fact. From the start the talk of tenses and participles seems fraught with subtext, some of which bursts out when he suddenly accuses her of racism or admits to stalking her, or when she tells of family tragedies that may or may not be true. Too often you find yourself asking why these two people are in the same room - why the unsettling behaviour of one hasn't driven the other away, and the realisation that they are both so emotionally damaged that they could be attracted to each other explains without thoroughly convincing. What the play does offer is a showcase for the two performers. As directed by Malcolm Purkey, Marianne Oldham and Nat Ramabulana have to race through a range of intense emotions, often with little set-up or transition. Oldham magnetically captures a temperament that is mercurial to the edge of mania, while Ramabulana makes every moment intensely real even if we can't always be sure how his character got there or how it connects with anything else about him. 
Gerald Berkowitz

Green Eggs and Hamlet   Space@the Radisson          ****
This is Hamlet, but not as you have ever seen it performed. Combined with the simple rhymes of Dr. Seuss, there is surely no better challenge than to rewrite Shakespeare’s most complex play into a fifty-minute comedy. Jon Greenwell is undoubtedly the star of the show, a Hamlet with good presence and excellent delivery (reeling off Seussian rhymes at an alarming pace with perfection). Furthermore he possesses a remarkable ability to look entirely charming in a dress and blonde wig - method in the madness indeed. Horatio is presented as his bumbling sidekick – stumbling out of the curtain Hamlet greets him by ironically complimenting his timing. Regrettably, Cameron (Horatio, Polonius) is not as straight-faced and frequently looks in danger of corpsing. While the scenes are mostly presented in a light-hearted fashion, Hamlet’s initial confrontation with the Ghost retains a surprising tenseness which makes it a highlight of the show. Looking towards the morning sun Niewald’s piercing eyes send a chill through the room. It is not just the clever couplets that make the show entertaining though; the play-within-a-play gets plenty of laughter not through its wit or bright language, but through sheer visual comedy: sock puppets. One on each of Laertes’ hands, and this is not the last time you see them. Ultimately this is a fine show, well rehearsed, directed and performed. Although at times it feels as if the cast do not fully invest in it, which is what stops it becoming a great show.  Jamie Benzine

Grimm Fairytales   Space@the Radisson            **
In this startling amateur production the audience picks the potential stories out of a hat - and what a gamble it is. There is some hearty storytelling on show, but it is overshadowed by some simply unacceptable faults. The company dressed all in black, use simple props to tell the Grimms' tales. The unoriginality of this conceit needn’t be damning. There will always be undeniable pleasure is seeing actors use ingenuity and imagination to tell a story. Unfortunately these UWE students can hardly boast ingenuity and imagination in this particular production. 
There are some energetic performances: Monty Kimball-Evans is notable for his commitment. James Morris and Mike Yates also try desperately to add a little quality to the production. Others however stand on stage smiling awkwardly like fifteen year olds forced to do the school play. As these baffling additions to the ensemble smirk at their friends in the audience, one can’t help feeling sorry for Kimball-Evans, his high-octane efforts rather akin to flogging a dead horse. The show's audience is rather ambiguous. The piece isn’t advertised as a children’s show and certainly I believe the youngsters around me cracked a smile twice, and once it was because they’d been handed a sweet. Neither is there much for adults. Or anyone for that matter. There are another four possible tales on offer, available on an alternate night. Maybe these will be better but I’d rather not risk it. The grimmest tale here is that these students are actually charging for their limp efforts. Ashley Layton

Gutted - A Revenger's Musical   Assembly *****
Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy is as camp horror schlock as they come and so it comes as no surprise to find it the inspiration for this musical with its winning line-up of comics. Oh no, I hear you cry, not another comedy assortment like the vapid Talk Radio and anaemic Killer Joe. No, not at all. This is a good honest romp that owes as much to Kind Hearts and Coronets as Middleton’s 1606 bloodbath.  With book and lyrics by Danielle Ward and music by Martin White, the tale is a sad one. The beautiful Sorrow is to marry a scion of the Bewley family but has somehow omitted to mentioned that they caused the death of her parents when she was a child. In fact lust for her intended’s blood is the distinctly unbridelike thought foremost in her mind as she proceeds to bump off her new relatives via increasingly unlikely ‘accidents’. Bouncy songs hold together a rogue’s gallery of mad in-laws and hangers-on, while an unholy trio of comic spectres materialise to egg Sorrow whenever she falters. Colin Hoult has a dream of a job in playing the whole Bewley clan, from dangerous dowagers to corpulent cousins, while David Reed, Thom Tuck and Humphrey Kerr (aka the Penny Dreadfuls) bring an extra dimension of fun to the murderous proceedings. The real discovery is Helen George who blends spot-on comic timing with a perfect voice. There is the thrill of watching this you-should-have-been-there Fringe one-off with all the loose staging you would expect. And yet the tiniest tightening-up would make this into a viable touring unit – such as sharper direction by Chris George on dialogue, removing the bass and drums from the live band, adding more gags. Still, easily one of the funniest nights on the Fringe and congratulations to all involved.  Nick Awde

Toby Hadoke - Now I Know My BBC   Underbelly       ****
If you caught Toby Hadoke’s previous show Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf, you have an idea how the golden era of British TV fits into his life. It’s not that he is obsessed with it, more that the thirtysomething man who stands before you has been moulded by constant exposure to the box. Exposure to the BBC, to be precise. As Hadoke explains, our national broadcasting corporation is the jewel in our cultural crown, empowered as it is to educate as well as entertain. And that’s a remit it was fulfilling at full throttle in the decades when Hadoke was growing up, which handily provides the topic from which he emits a thoughtful stream of observations and judgements on programmes, test cards and theme tunes. There’s the minimalism of Vision On, the perverse colour-coding of Morph, the worthiness of John Craven’s Newsround, the double-entendres of Larry Grayson. Each gets a bitter-sweet tie-in of an episode from his early years when he was still a fuddy-duddy with flaky skin and bad flares, raised in a small Shropshire village pre-world wide web where the BBC was the only window to the rest of the universe. You swiftly realise there was such a wealth of groundbreaking shows that Blue Peter and Doctor Who get only the briefest of mentions. Hadoke mostly keeps his digs at modern broadcasting to a few running gags, a wise decision that lets us laugh and revel in the past without sinking into cloying nostalgia. He almost shoots himself in the foot by upping the ante and getting overly political and ranty at the end, but ultimately that’s a minor cavill.  Nick Awde

Hamlet: Blood in the Brain   Church Hill Theatre         **
H sees his father’s ghost telling him to avenge his death by killing the murderer, H's uncle. It may sound like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, however, swap swords for guns, tights for tracksuits and exile for jail and you have on your hands an almost unrecognisable play. Set in drug-ravaged Oakland, California in 1989, this is Hamlet staged with no ‘To be or not to be’ and nothing more than a scratch at the surface of the hero’s tormented psyche. Marcus Thompson’s brave attempt at portraying the complex character is unfortunately held back by a lack of depth and understanding in the production as a whole. It is difficult to follow the rushed and fleeting lines, especially when accompanied by singing, beat-boxing or stamping. In the end, it felt as though the play’s key themes had been skipped over to make room for more entertaining elements like rap-battles, body contortions and hip-hop music. About twenty minutes into the performance a group of some twenty-five people were admitted into the studio, causing spectators to miss an entire scene and adding to the confusion. 

Still, in the middle of all this is one actress who makes the show worthwhile. Keyera Lucas-Evans’ C (or Claudius) is so convincing that it is easy to forget she is a woman. Where others speak rhythmically, loudly and in a monotone manner, Lucas-Evans’ performance is dynamic and highly engaging.  Yasmeena Daya

Hamlet - End of a Childhood  Zoo            ****
Thomas Marceul introduces us in this play-with-a-play-within to a young teenager sulking in his room while his offstage mother begs him to join the family that includes his new stepfather. Sensing the relevance of the book he's been reading, he begins to act out Hamlet, playing all the roles himself with the aid of some toys and other props. (I should pause here to note that Marceul performs in French. There are English surtitles, but the French text is simple and unpoetic, and with basic school French and some knowledge of Hamlet you can follow it without much help.) The condensation of Hamlet is intelligent and not much more severe than some conventional productions, and here it gives a nice sense of the boy's perception of the play, with Ophelia clearly based on his real life girlfriend and Fortinbras' army made up of action figures from his toybox. The emotional excesses of 'To be or not to be' sound just right for a self-pitying adolescent, and there is something sweet about sending Hamlet to the graveyard to visit his father. As a solo Hamlet with a frame, this is similar to Linda Marlowe's My Hamlet (see our review). But Marceul is more successful not only in juggling roles and voices, but also in showing the frame story colouring the Shakespeare. And he is particularly touching in letting us see how Shakespeare helps the boy work out his real life feelings. 
Gerald Berkowitz

Hamlet - The Musical  Pleasance              *****
In the department of Sounds Like A Really Bad Idea But Actually Works, this musical romp through Hamlet is a total delight, from the opening soliloquy ('I've been feeling kind of gloomy/But my father's dead, so sue me') to the grand singalong to what is actually a a very fine, if surprisingly perky, musical setting of 'To be or not to be.' Hamlet is a moody chavish adolescent, Laertes has been watching too many swashbucklers, the Ghost notes ruefully that he wouldn't be hanging around if Denmark were Protestant, and the players are a Michael Bennett chorus line. This is the kind of show in which Claudius' cry 'Give me some light' produces a follow spot, and I won't even get into the final duel. The point is that writer-composers Alex Silverman, Timothy Knapman and Ed Jaspers have hit exactly the right note of inventiveness and healthy disrespect, and only the most dreary of academic purists could resist the fun. On the other hand, it is essentially an extended revue sketch and does occasionally show its thinness, and the cast is uneven, Jack Shalloo's rather bland Hamlet outsung and out-acted by Stephen Webb's Laertes and Virge Gilchrist's sexy Gertrude eclipsing Jess Robinson's Ophelia.  Gerald Berkowitz

Harlekin  Pleasance       ****
The main coup of Anton Adasinsky’s latest creation is that it turns dance into a confessional theatre form. In true Derevo style, this is a highly inspired, delicately lit and often humorous piece of non-verbal lyricism that leaves us in no doubt about its key themes – the timeless agonies of the performing arts and of the broken hearts.  Old fans will notice that two of the original ensemble members Tanya Khabarova and Dmitry Tyulpanov are missing from this show and are replaced by the unusually tall Anna Budanova. Playing mostly sinister and allegorical roles, she provides foil to Adasinsky and Yarovaya’s immensely vulnerable and occasionally volatile mere mortals. For even when they appear to breathe life into wind-up toys and rag dolls in this playroom, Derevo seem to bestow on them the ambiguous gift of deep emotion. Succeeding where words tend to fail, Harlekin features plenty of trademark delightfulness, even if at times it feels that the individual scenes could have gelled together more seamlessly. But then, when someone is pouring their heart out to you, it’s hard to be critical.  Duska Radosavljevic

Sadie Hasler: Lady Bones   Pleasance       ***
Sadie Hasler breaths to life a host of famous, dead females in this one-woman show. You’ll be treated to quips from Katherine Hepburn, Sylvia Plath, and Iris Murdoch to name a few. Sadie herself is a charming performer who is clearly excited by her own written material. At their best Sadie’s caricatures are witty and incisive, a subversive kick in the side of patriarchies past. However, because Sadie imbues most of her characters with repetitive, lascivious language, the theatrical terrain is uneven, and what might have seemed delightfully shocking in the first ten minutes tends to flag later on. Surely there is more fun to be had in resurrecting famous women than by making them all giant sluts. This is a shame, as Sophie is a very engaging and versatile hostess. With a leaner and more varied vehicle, she is sure to kill.   Hannah Friedman

Hit Me! - The Life And Rhymes Of Ian Dury Gilded Balloon  ****    (Reviewed at a previous Festival)
Openly a celebration of and love letter to the singer-songwriter who produced some of the wittiest lyrics of the punk rock era, Jeff Merrifield's play catches Dury at three points from his peak in the 1980s to his death in 2000. While the dramaturgy is rudimentary, generally consisting of Dury and his friend/minder/roadie Fred 'Spider' Rowe either telling each other things they already know or taking turns addressing the audience directly with memories and anecdotes, the details and performances do accumulate to build a living portrait of the man with all his flaws and contradictions. It would have been easy to make him just a generic bad boy of rock'n'roll, but Merrifield makes believable connections between Dury's childhood polio, which left him crippled, and both his creative energy and his dissipation of it. The guy who could be loved and hated by those around him in almost equal measure was paradoxically as happy with a cup of tea as with a bottle of brandy, content to alternate cutting-edge rock with TV ad voiceovers.  Gerald Berkowitz

Homo Asbo   Gilded Balloon           ****
Winston Walsh is going straight. Well, at least as an ex-con he’s on the straight and narrow (still tagged though). As a newly empowered gay man things are anything but. But mind, for Winston is also a fully paid-up chav, revelling in his testosterone-fuelled lager-lout gayness, a bare-knuckle champion who now uses his fists for something else. This bruiser is out, proud and shouting it a little too loud, informing us that his post-jail mission is to help others confront their inner homosexual selves. And so Winston launches into his life story, growing up on a Yeoville estate, learning to punch hard to ward off cries of “poofter!”, landing a mate in it for dogging in the B&Q carpark, coming over Sting on the sofa. Cutting one-liners abound, rimmed with the ring of truth, and there’s even a certain poignancy as he talks about eight loved-up years in a prison cell with fellow inmate Tommo, the one-armed thug who rules the block. Winston confesses that gay life behind bars is preferable to anything on the Scene and in between the patter comes harder satire in songs and poems, a gush of pastiches and dodgy couplets where Winston naughtily lists great historical gay figures and wickedly lampoons modern celebs. A laugh a minute means that there is nothing mawkish about the politics, nothing pleading. However creator Richard Fry stumbles slightly by visibly dipping in and out of character. Since he’s 100 per cent charming and knows his audience that’s fine, but it could distract less forgiving audiences outside the Edinburgh bubble. Still, gay, straight or otherwise, you’ll look hard to find a funnier show that miraculously manages to stay so on-message.  Nick Awde

Honest   Assembly             ****
Dave has had it up to here with lies, even the acceptable social ones, and as you sit near him in the snug of an Edinburgh pub, he'll explain why he has decided to tell the truth from now on, even though that's not an easy project for one who works for the government, in an obscure department whose function is to churn out jargon-filled reports that no one reads. DC Moore's frequently very funny monologue is delivered quietly and conversationally by Trystan Gravelle to those of us sitting at adjoining tables, recounting Dave's misadventures in honesty, ranging from discovering the impossibility of insulting his dimwitted co-workers to the guilt generated when a bit too much alcohol inspires him to tell his amiably idiotic boss what he really thinks of him. That guilt, and a lot more alcohol, inspire him to walk across London in the wee hours to apologise, in what becomes a mock-epic quest. Except for the London setting (and humour based on the narrator's awareness of the subtle social and demographic distinctions among the neighbourhoods he traverses) this is very much Conor McPherson territory, though Moore either can't or chooses not to follow McPherson's mode of making the shaggy dog story build to a real punch line or climax; instead, his hero's adventure ends with a quiet and in its own way quite satisfying anticlimax.  Gerald Berkowitz

Hood!   Spaces@the Radisson     ****
A rare phenomenon for a traditional one-hour slot at Edinburgh, this ambitious retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood throws caution to the wind and goes for the epic treatment. Credit goes to director Callum Cheadle, choreographer Lily Hawkins and a supremely energetic cast that they pull it off armed with little more than a few costumes and streaks of make-up. Deep in the woods, the world of the hooded girl, her grandmother and the woodcutter is intertwined inseparably with the wildlife that lives alongside amongst the trees. There is little to distinguish human from animal, meaning that it is only a tiny but bloody step for the rapacious wolf to make into Riding Hood’s world. In one long glorious cinematographic sweep the 10-minute opening scene uses this cast of ten to conjure up a teeming woodland scene where even the tiniest creature has its own drama. Movement individual and combined plays against an a cappella soundscape of voices as techniques are shunted from level to level as the narrative demands: for trees a pile of bodies, for human activity a dance sequence, for the major plot strident narrative (“How big your eyes are...!”).  The action rarely repeats itself unless as a motif, such as the human ticking pendulum or the hissing cat in the corner. A blink and you would almost miss the West Side Story swoosh across the stage. Peculius Stage’s production especially impresses because of the way it magically balances between fantasy and fear. Nick Awde

Colin Hoult: Enemy of the World   Pleasance         ****
Colin Hoult transforms himself into a plethora of hilariously despicable characters in Enemy of the World. With the help of three comic/demonic sidekicks and a well-stocked costume cupboard, Mr. Hoult presents searingly cynical scenes of the absentee father, the macho womanizer, and even the clueless, screenwriter wannabe. Colin’s comic aim is often remarkably true, and you’re sure to find yourself cringing in gleeful recognition at some of his more devastatingly accurate personality portraits. Colin shifts from scenes, to soliloquies, to seemingly effortless audience participation bits with the seamlessness of a consummate professional. Even when the gags lag, he is so swift that the lull is barely discernable. His humor can only begin to be described as Monty Python and Charlie Chaplin meeting Dante for a tour of the many circles of hell. After all, he does make his grand entrance cradling a miniature baby Hitler, cooing him a loving lullaby as the doll proceeds to Seig Heil the entire audience. Enemy of the World is deliciously dark, wonderfully twisted, and knee-slappingly funny.   Hannah Friedman

How To Be An Imaginary Friend   Space@Venue 45          ****
Z-Theatre Company have delivered an original and hilariously immature piece of new writing from Michael Hotchkiss, successfully balancing a touching sensitivity towards childhood fantasy with a crass and adolescent sense of humour. Ben (Alex Brook) has never had a girlfriend. Even in his mid-twenties, he’s only had one real friend: Captain Kilowatt. And he’s not real. Captain Kilowatt (Mark Harvey) has been successfully employed as Ben’s imaginary friend for over 15 years, but begins to fear for his livelihood as Ben starts to chase his childhood sweetheart, Hannah (Harriet Ward.) Saturated with student oriented comedy, Hotchkiss’ adolescent tone might fall flat on an older audience. Fortunately, line after line of pop-culture references and modernisms were greeted by uproar and rapturous applause from the student-filled auditorium. Harvey completely steals the stage, his attention to detail is delightful and his delivery never misses a beat. Despite being imaginary, he stubbornly refuses to release your attention until he storms off, cape billowing. Kilowatt is so interesting to watch that it is easy to understand why Ben chose to indulge his fantasy for 15 years. Aimed exclusively at the text-speak generations, this comedy was imaginatively funny, with a style and approach that might even lend itself to children’s theatre, if Hotchkiss would reconsider some of the vulgar gags.  Kris Lewis

Kai Humphries   Underbelly           **
Amiable Geordie comic Kai Humphries opens his first solo outing with some predictable jokes about being Geordie, and predictability will continue to haunt his act as his stated topic of evolution keeps getting sidetracked by such standard material as dumb blondes, predictive text errors, women and maps, adolescent erections and how girlfriends redecorate when they move in. Another recurring hazard is the convoluted joke that takes so long to set up and to explain afterwards that what might have been an effective one or two-liner is lost. The idea of Stephen Hawking being a time traveller meets this fate, and he never does find the joke in the long Narnia bit. There are at least three separate extended jokes set on toilets, each losing power as it lingers on. Sprinkled through the hour are some bits of legitimately fresh material, like the Mary Poppins joke and the Geordies on television sequence, and Humphries has a friendly boyish air. But he will need a lot better material and more polish to succeed.  Gerald Berkowitz

The Hunchback of Notre Dame   Pleasance        ****
Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of the most enduring images passed down to us, even inspiring the similarly iconic story of King Kong. That romanticism however has also resulted in a myth that reduces Quasimodo to a cartoon image of pitiful brute muttering the bells the bells and the ugly reject who somehow, Christ like, finds redemption in love for others. Pip Utton’s deeply thoughtful play redresses that by probing the hunchback’s humanity and asks what is the real sympathy he should evoke, resulting in a moving reflection of what beauty means for us all. Quasimodo is keeping vigil over the lifeless body of his Gypsy love Esmeralda (Caitlin Hannah McGuinness). With a quiet focused voice and humanly crumpled features, this hunchback is no movie caricature and becomes less so as we learn more of his life, rejected at birth as an abomination, raised lovingly by the cathedral’s archdeacon but rejected by all others. He struggles to understand how the Catholic God can love him.  He now surveys the world from his lofty peak in the Notre Dame towers with only the bells and gargoyles for company. His description of the bells as family members is comic yet heart-rending, while his often poetic descriptions of life in the cathedral and the city help to place him within our own lives. We realise, for example, that his encounter with the gypsy woman is no coincidence but part of the ebb and flow of city life, that Paris’s beauty itself is skin-deep for, when night falls, evil emerges from the daily hustle and bustle.  As with every Utton production, there comes a point when you are faced with a deeper, often unexpected question. Here Quasimodo asks why something as fleeting and subjective as beauty can block love and condone hatred, the most profound emotions we know. As psychological as it is emotional, this play achieves beauty in its simplicity and plea for unconditional acceptance of every human being on this earth.  Nick Awde

I, Claudia   Assembly       *****
Originally conceived and performed in 2001, this delightful one woman show has already had raving reviews, a successful international tour and the honour of being turned into an award-winning film. Nevertheless, in its current incarnation, it seems as fresh and vibrant as if it has only just emerged from its chrysalis.  The butterfly metaphor, borrowed from the show itself, sums up its main theme too. This is the story of a precocious 13 year old Toronto school-girl caught up in between the confusion of puberty and the break up of her family home. To make matters more interesting we also meet another three protagonists in this small drama, conjured up by writer/performer Kristen Thomson with skill, sensitivity and a selection of masks and costumes. Director and sound designer Chris Abraham places the whole thing into an evocative soundscape to add emotional nuance and aid the in-between scene transformations.  Rendered with a perfect combination of imagination, humour and poise, this rite-of passage story is also bejewelled with unexpected and very well placed pearls of wisdom guaranteed to lodge themselves into your memory for a long time. Very well worth catching this summer.  Duska Radosavljevic

I, Elizabeth  Assembly        ****
Taking her text largely from the actual writings, speeches and reported conversations of Elizabeth I, Rebecca Vaughan creates a rounded and nuanced portrait of the most complex and politically astute woman of her age, making the point without having to press it that England was remarkably fortunate to have had her as queen. The strengths of the piece lie in the convincing authenticity of the portrait and in Vaughan's complete and unflagging immersion in the character. The lesser weaknesses arise from a rather static staging, director Guy Masterson finding little for the actress to do but sit down, stand up and then sit down again, and in a somewhat rambling stream-of-consciousness structure that occasionally wavers in focus, rhythm or forward movement. Vaughan's performance fights these flaws by letting us follow the Queen's thoughts and emotions, as when the question of succession leads to the acknowledgement that Mary of Scotland has the strongest claim. But the more Elizabeth thinks of her cousin, the more irritated she becomes until we glimpse the rage that will eventually determine Mary's fate. Similar trains of thought connect her love of country and commitment to service with her sincere Protestant faith, and offer a hint of where the Queen's remarkable strength came from. So densely packed and loosely structured, the piece might be a bit too long or overwhelming for an audience to absorb; like Elizabeth herself, there may just be too much here to fully comprehend.  Gerald Berkowitz

I Wish You Love  Spaces@ the Radisson       ***
A salute to superstars Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich, this two-hander combines dialogue of minimal interest with singing that comes pleasurably close to the real thing. Sarah Hymas's text is a string of imagined conversations or letters between the two friends that doesn't provide very much depth or insight into either. Piaf alternately gushes over the current man in her life or bemoans the absence of a man in her life, while Dietrich tries to cheer her up, counsels putting more glamour and glitz into her act, and kvetches about her own ungrateful daughter. Babette Bell (Piaf) and Clare Chandler (Dietrich) attempt little in the way of characterisation beyond ugly and inappropriate wigs and wavering accents, and I'm quite sure Piaf didn't lisp. But every few moments they pause for one or the other to sing one of her signature songs - Piaf's La Vie En Rose, Chapel Bells or No Regrets, Dietrich's Lily Marlene, Boys in the Back Room or Falling In Love Again - and both singers do capture the sound and stylings of the originals quite nicely, so that if you close your eyes you can imagine you're hearing the actual stars themselves. So let your mind wander through the spoken scenes - you won't miss anything - and enjoy the reminders of what these great song stylists sounded like. Gerald Berkowitz

Icarus' Mother & Red Cross   Spotlights@Merchants' Hall          **
Pen, Paint and Pretzels take to the stage with two back-to-back Sam Shepard plays and while neither enthral, glimpses of promise occasionally pepper an otherwise bland offering. Icarus’ Mother presents a group of five small-town American buddies, enjoying a late-night beach party as they wait for a firework display. Red Cross is a storm of physical and social discomfort as a patient and nurse trade insights. The common thread between these plays is repression due to routine, tradition and seclusion. The problem is that the instability of Shepard’s characters allows for no audience connection or empathy. Icarus’ Mother is guiltier of this as diatribes on fireworks, aviation and community frequently puncture ordinary conversation and the actors often struggle to bring relevance or interest to their monologues. Red Cross however provides a marked improvement in acting, dialogue, characterisation and humour. Pikowski and Schoenbrun are the most assured of the cast so it is no surprise to see the momentum they inject in this piece. The intense irritation of crabs and cramp are enacted with painful realism. Ultimately though there are very few inspired moments in this production and while admittedly it is a challenge to energise Shepard’s brief and enigmatic text, it is one that the students of Tuft University have been unable to overcome.  Jamie Benzine

Imperial Fizz   Assembly    ****
An elegant couple straight out of Noel Coward exchange ever-so-witty epigrams between mixing cocktails and dancing like Fred and Ginger. Only a slightly frayed and forced quality to their repartee, along with their evident fear of something outside this art deco room, hints that all may not be as simple and carefree as it seems. David Calvitto and Issy van Randwyck are absolute masters of this kind of rapid-fire artifice, and Brian Parks' script gives them plenty of opportunity to shine with lines like 'I would like to have been a taller man but my modesty prevented it' and exchanges like 'You run from responsibility' - 'I need the exercise.' But it's when they begin playing a mock trial and interrogating each other as witnesses to their marriage that the quips get nastier and a darker tone develops, so that you may begin to guess at the twist ending before it arrives. But so strong are the earlier, lighter parts of the play and so adept are the performers at maintaining the witty dance that the dark ending may seem a bit rushed and imposed on the delightfully cloudless play we thought we were watching through most of its length.  Gerald Berkowitz

The Improverts   Bedlam                   ***
In improvised comedy, how much can you blame bad audience suggestions? For example when the Improverts asked the crowd for a quirk or an eccentricity, the only answer they gave was an itchy foot. Understandably it can be a frustrating and fruitless exercise for the performers. Thankfully, the five guys are a charismatic quick-witted group. So many people have been inspired by the show ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway’, that the student sketch/improvised games genre are plentiful at the festival. These players stand out because of their genuine chemistry, their ease at working running jokes in seamlessly, and a great crew of flexible techs. The games range from familiar, a group song challenge (where incidentally they were asked to sing about fuel and Fred West) to the unknown, like a panel advice show which resulted in creative response, but lacking answers. While still in the early minutes of the show they asked for issues, fake or otherwise, from the audience. One man said that David Hasselhoff was his father. It seemed like the comics suffered from some kind of mutual brain freeze where they stumbled over their prepared stuff instead of gunning for great potential source material. I'm sure a few jokes could be made about Night Rider, the nickname ‘Hoff’, or how he believes he’s responsible for the fall of the Berlin Wall. While comedy will always be hit and miss, I still saw them with a difficult audience. But despite that these are consummate professionals who can guarantee laughs, and that’s no bad thing.  Joe Morgan

Intertwine   Zoo Roxy            ***
This programme of four dance pieces from Collisions starts strong and goes progressively downhill, demonstrating that choreographer-dancer David Beer, who created the first two dances, is the company's strongest asset. 2, a work in progress set to a mix of Bach and punk rock, suggests a completely self-sufficient man (Beer) trying quietly to deflect the demands of the emotionally needy woman danced by Verity Hopkins, while Beer's Inertia sets Hopkins, Ana Mrdjanov and Bianca Silcox in an understated competition, taking turns seizing the floor to mark it as their territory before a trio built on images of each fighting to contain explosive forces within. In both dances Beer openly quotes modern masters from Graham through Joffrey, Ailey and Tharp, as well as classical vocabulary and his own unforced physicality. Soupirs, Johnny Autin's introspective solo for Beer, is so inward looking and self-absorbed as to allow the audience little entry, and by far the weakest piece is Marc Dodi's jokey Gloria, a parody of soap opera emotions in which each of the four dancers speaks of their fictional problems before lip syncing to a relevant pop song, from Yesterday to Cry Me A River. The accompanying dance is far too literal and music-bound, recalling the worst of TV backup dancing. While its attempts to expand its repertoire are admirable, it looks like the company's future remains in-house.  Gerald Berkowitz

In Touch   Pleasance Dome            ***
What if technology took over, rendering us a society of social recluses; doomed to stay indoors and speak only through the medium of smiley faces and SMS language? In Touch explores this very concept through song and gesture, with plenty of laughter along the way. The likes of Facebook and Twitter have become the new religion for teenagers, we can now carry the internet in our pocket and if you are without the Iphone or a Blackberry then you must be from the Stone Age. In this respect, this musical resounds in its audience and is (if you excuse the pun) easy to connect to. A weak storyline means that potential is unfulfilled, however, with a longer running time, this piece could go on to be a cultural phenomenon. Whilst the voices are not incredibly strong, the characters are vivaciously portrayed throughout with outstanding performances from Paul Hodge, Candice Palladino and Helen Hart. We follow Jane, who is confined to her wheelchair and David, who hasn’t left his house in six years. Both characters are addicted to the pull of the screen, finding and building friendships with people across the globe. As the stories develop we realise the shallowness of these online relationships and the way in which they have torn apart emotional ties with the real world. Simple choreography and witty lyrics mean this is an enjoyable performance but whilst the observations made were relevant and interesting, they quite simply failed to go anywhere.  Georgina Evenden

It's Always Right Now, Unless It's Later   Traverse        *****
Daniel Kitson has written yet another in his series of exquisite little tales of little people, so rich in detail and so warm and loving toward its subjects that we are drawn into the world he creates and almost startled to find ourselves back in a theatre when it's over. This time he tells the life stories of two people who barely meet and who in fact have nothing to do with each other, both lives imagined as an almost infinite string of separate moments. Kitson looks at some of these moments in seemingly random order, prefixing each bit of narrative with 'Twenty-eight years earlier he...' or 'Five years later she...,' and letting us piece together the wholes from this pointillist method. The moments themselves range from the blackly comic - a dying man speaking his carefully prepared last words and then having to remain silent when he lives on another few days, in order not to spoil the effect - to the sweet - a married couple going through the well-practised dance of trading unwanted foodstuffs when dining together. It has to be said that although Kitson is a genial raconteur, at least 90% of the joy in this piece is in the writing, the one concession to theatricality being a stage full of lightbulbs, which glow in turn to represent each described point in time.  Gerald Berkowitz

Jack Pratchard   Zoo Roxy         *
Representing storytelling at almost its most minimal, this forty-minute piece by Jonathan Storey employs a toy theatre whose simple two-dimensional sets and cartoon figures Storey manipulates as he tells his fable of a man who dies and has adventures in the city of the dead. The tale itself is not particularly evocative, and the charm of the toy theatre wears thin very quickly as it becomes apparent how limited the device is. Meanwhile, doing everything himself, Storey must repeatedly interrupt the flow of his narrative to fiddle with the puppets and sets, and do all the fiddling openly and thus repeatedly break the illusion. Having a second person to work the puppets might have sustained and enhanced the magic while allowing Storey to focus on his narrative, though his low-keyed monotone delivery doesn't do much to draw us into the story. The piece never quite escapes the slightly creepy air of being trapped with a hobbyist determined to show off every last detail of his favourite toy without any awareness of whether we're interested.  Gerald Berkowitz

Jack The Knife    Assembly    *
Thirty years ago Jack Klaff  was a pioneer of self-written Fringe solo shows, with tightly scripted and highly polished monologues on topics ranging from South African politics to romantic love. More recently he has adopted a much less polished style, rambling sometimes barely coherently through his thoughts and relying on his considerable theatrical presence to carry the hour. His current show is advertised as a fearless skewering of the acting profession, but is in fact a loose sermon on the text that, all things considered, we really ought to be nicer to each other. He swears that his monologue is scripted, but it plays like stream-of-consciousness meandering, complete with self-interruptions, unfinished anecdotes and abandoned dead-end thoughts. Through a logic that is never clear, he equates disobedience with generosity, and tries to make a connection between Method actors, who broke with the 'Look at me' star performances of an earlier generation and thus, to his thinking, were more generous to their fellow performers (though those who tried to act alongside Brando or Pacino might disagree), his own professional choice (in moving from the RSC to movie bit parts and London pub theatres) not to follow standard career paths and thus become a better person, and his demand that we pause to applaud the ushers and sound man, thus breaking the rules and becoming better people too. His various examples require him repeatedly to redefine both disobedience and generosity until he's just jumbling together very different things and arbitrarily applying the same labels to them. At one point Klaff ridicules solipsists who assume they're interesting because they are who they are, but that is exactly what this self-appointed seer and guru is doing - expecting us to listen and be convinced by him just because he's Jack Klaff. And he's not very good at it.  Gerald Berkowitz

Jacob's Ladder   Underbelly             ***
Obsessive and withdrawn, Jake is not the most sociable of creatures so it is no surprise that he has decided to start up his own cult in his back garden. By the garden shed gather his first devotees, all of whom have answered an ad calling for followers. As you would expect, they’re a strange crowd – but not half as strange as Jake. Still, as they all eventually admit, it’s one way of making friends. The group includes a warm-hearted clubdancer, lumbering beekeeper, eternal flirt, closeted posh nob and rejected wife, and as is the wont of any secret society worthy of the name, the bitching, envy and rivalry bubbles up almost from the first moment they first encounter each other. As Jake tries to make sense of the squabbling, sex rears its head in several ways and abruptly the mismatched group finds itself agreeing to disagree as things steer into darker waters. There is a lot of humour here in scenes that are often touching at the same time, such as the sequence where the clubdancer and the wife alternate divergent views on what men want. Emily Moir has ambitiously put a lot of good ideas in her script but is several rewrites away from getting them convincingly aligned. In addition this is an uneven cast who suffer from the lack of a director’s sure hand – and yet one cannot fault their energy, which ultimately makes this slight play a success.  Nick Awde

Jam and Marmalade   Dragonfly         **
Jam and Marmalade is a small stand up gig which has little to boast about. Consisting of five separate ‘comedians’, the show is a blend of promising newcomers and downright awful performances. Compere James Bran does a good job of building up rapport with the audience and is confident in his material which is both original and well timed. While quite slow paced, he always brings out the acts to a freindly environment and shows potential as newcomer comedian. First act Will Ainsworth gets off to a rocky start and then heads down a dfficult path of recovery which he never fully realises. His attempts at darker humour fall short as he repeatedly forgets the comedic rule to never apologise, never explain. Dave Wormley lacks confidence and has poor stage presence. Unleashing a torrent of puns that you would find in any child's jokebook, he punctuates the awkward silence by consistently putting himself down, only worsening this masochistic performance. The promising Alex Watts, unlike his predecessors, has a strong grasp of funny. His material is original, dark, and at times horrendously funny. With a blend of bizzarre one liners and some well structured narrative, this is the sort of material worth pursuing on London's open mike circuit. The last act Martin Tolbot lacks self confidence in his presentation style. His comedy lacks any semblance of timing as he consistently acknowledges his own failure. With this mixed bag of potential, its probably best if Jam and Marmalade were kept in the cupboard.  Chris CJ Belfield

Jordan   Assembly             ****
The true story of Shirley Jones is depressingly banal - girl escapes small town and unhappy family life by running off with bad boy, gets pregnant, is abused and deserted, has and adores baby only to face being declared unfit and losing him, leaving her with what seems like the only way out. When the suicide half of her plan failed, Jones was charged with the murder of her baby. This solo play by Anna Reynolds with Moira Buffini begins there, as Jones awaits the verdict and, talking to the child who is still real to her, fills in the backstory. And it is in the telling, and in the performance of Allie Croker, that the power of this hour lies. The authors evocatively intertwine Jones' life with the fairy tale of Rumplestiltskin, with its threat of a mother losing her adored child, and they make some clever and insightful leaps into her mind, as when they have her wonder if the bruises of battered women are invisible, since no one ever acknowledges them, or explain as self-evident that to a girl from Morecambe a boy from Birmingham would seem exotic. Allie Croker skilfully avoids the solo show trap of having no legitimate reason for telling her story by building her narration on a string of sudden memories that catch her by surprise and delight or upset her in the here and now of the play. An epilogue tells us what happened to the real Jones after the moment dramatised here, and it is a tribute to Croker's sensitive portrayal that we are prepared for the news.  Gerald Berkowitz

Miles Jupp - Fibber in the Heat     Gilded Balloon                       ****
Less a typical stand-up comedy routine than an extended piece of storytelling at his own expense, Miles Jupp's hour is an account of the cricket fan's attempt to become a cricket journalist. Acquiring a couple of shaky assignments from Scottish radio and a Welsh newspaper to maybe cover an England-India match, Jupp flew to India to join the press brigade. What followed was a mix of highs - drinking in the hotel bar with David Gower and Ian Botham - and lows - constant hassles over his press credentials and the growing suspicion among the real working press that there was a cuckoo in the nest. Jupp recounts it all with the good humour of distance, which enables him to appreciate the irony of actually getting bored with the company of Gower and Botham and the black comedy of a Delhi belly attack. Of course it helps to be interested in cricket, to recognise the names he drops freely and to get the occasional cricket in-joke. But the subject is really Jupp himself, and the very satisfying tale of how he discovered where his real place as a fan was.  Gerald Berkowitz

Just Macbeth!   Assembly                     *****
Delightfully capturing a schoolchild's image of the Scottish play, this Australian import is both a lot of fun for kids and adults and a quite legitimate introduction to some of the play's complexities. Author Andy Griffiths introduces a handful of kids, aged eleven or twelve perhaps, who find themselves magically transported into the play they've been studying in school. Addressed and treated as characters, they have to improvise their way along, based on what they remember of the plot, while retaining their own perceptions. So the nice kid who finds that he has become Macbeth at first rejects the idea of murder, but the pretty girl he has been trying to impress is now Lady M, and she manipulates him as easily as she could in real life. There are lots of silly jokes (Duncan Donuts) and clever twists (one predicting spirit's convoluted syntax naturally turns him into Yoda) and whole chunks of Shakespeare. And meanwhile our boy hero finds himself duplicating Macbeth's moral and psychological journey, as his early hesitation gives way to a taste for blood and then a weary wish that none of it had ever happened. Wayne Harrison directs with a subtle blend of silliness and respect for both the material and the audience, and Patrick Brammall is an attractive and sympathetic hero, but the audience favourite is John Leary in a string of quick-change roles that lead to escalating costume confusions.  Gerald Berkowitz

Keepers   Pleasance                     ****
Beautifully crafted performances by the duo called The Plasticine Men bring this reimagining of a true horror story to theatrical life. In the early Nineteenth Century the two-man crew of a lighthouse miles off the Welsh coast go about their methodical duties. The one played by Martin Bonger is all business, with no room in his mind or heart for anything but their enormous responsibilities. The other, played by Fionn Gill, is more easily distracted, able to enjoy the beauties of nature but in constant danger of being distracted from his duties. For the first half of the play they go through their daily routines, tending the lamp, cleaning the windows, fighting the almost constant storms, all in an an unassuming but precise mime nicely accompanied by recorded sound effects so that, for example, we hear the squeak of cleaning cloth against glass as loudly as it must seem to them. And then one has an accident, leaving the other to face fear, loneliness and encroaching madness. Sensitively directed by Simon Day, the two performers work together admirably to create and sustain both a detailed reality and a movingly elegiac tone on an all but bare stage.  Gerald Berkowitz

Language of Angels   C Venue           ***
Drawing upon her joint Japanese and American heritage, Naomi Iizuka’s play explores the lives of small town Americans through the form of the ghostly, non-linear Mugen nō. Heightened articulation is given to those typically seen to have little as we witness inhibitors of the infamous Appalachia region deal with their guilt and tortured memories of friends tragically lost. A brave choice. Fortunately the acting on display was strong in the most part, the actors stoically tackled parts which spanned a lifetime. Unfortunately little effort has been made to discover more subtle depths beneath the surface layer of abject tragedy. It is perfectly possible that the director Cathy Thomas Grant could lead her committed group of actors in discovering the moments of relief throughout the piece. The promotional video for the production shows the characters happy and enjoying their youth. Had the director chosen to include such scenes in the play itself we might have had a better sense of what had been lost. Pepperdine successfully present a solid piece of drama but you can’t help feeling they have the talent to create a much more rounded piece. Daren Diggle’s set is beautifully simple and it would have been nice to see the cave structures used more, their ability to obscure and separate - wonderfully appropriate. The use of music and sounscaping is effective though perhaps the cast, who have clear musical talents may wish to develop this aspect further. Some audiences may find the repeated and occasionally arbitrary use of breathing and humming distracting whilst longing to hear more of the beautifully delivered songs. Some missed opportunities but a solid and thoughtful piece of work.  Ashley Layton

Tony Law - Mr. Tony's Brainporium The Stand       ****
I suspect the Brainporium bit was put into the programme a while before Tony Law actually wrote the show, for this is in reality a witty themed show about the craft of the stand-up. Not only does he riff through every possible style of comedy but you do feel as if you’ve been to a masterclass of sorts. Alarmingly clad in a black lycra body suit that he swears is experimental Kevlar, Law riffs round the room (literally, taking in the drapes, shape and design of chairs), calls for bringing back the old techniques (“Hey I had a strange day today…”), explains improv and workshopping, and deconstructs the art of checking one’s watch onstage. He ropes in a flood of routines to illustrate the sections such as an ever-worsening list of all the appalling gigs he has done, haranguing the café downstairs through the floorboards, and a particularly wicked sequence reserved especially for accents – bombing Dresden has never seemed this funny, and you’ll probably look at Belgians in a different light. Law’s languid drawl and expertise in bringing the audience into his comic world justly packed out the Stand on this unappealingly rainy Monday midday slot. It is ironic that the more cutting he gets, the more feelgood the laughs – of which there were many.  Nick Awde

Legless'n'Harmless  C Aquila    ****
Two weeks into the festival, this newly formed double act seems to have already developed an eager following. Audience members file in with such a sense of anticipation it is just as amusing to watch them react to Brooks and Hicks, as watching the frequently slapstick humour of the duo itself.  The basic premise of the show could perhaps be described as Monty Python meets the rude mechanicals. Like a contemporary Bottom the Weaver – wearing plenty of fake suntan to boot – debutante Brooks introduces the play he wrote and gives us details of how it will be performed. His inept sidekick, however, constantly throws the spanner in the works. He is only there because Brooks has promised to let him sing a song for his grandfather. The two have a fantastic chemistry on the stage and Hicks in particular tends to elicit much sympathy from the audience. This is not the first time that thespian aspirations and backstage antics are exploited for comic effect, but the format provides scope for self-irony, which Random Acts of Wildness use to good effect. Whatever it is they are doing anyway seems to work on their audience, so they are likely to have plenty of opportunities to reinvent themselves.   Duska Radosavljevic

Les Enfants Terribles: The Vaudevillians  Pleasance         ****
Les Enfants return to the Fringe for a one-night-only musical extravaganza, The Vaudevillians. Chaos erupts at The Empire theater when the boozy proprietor is found dead, and every act on the bill becomes a suspect. In time the audience is treated to the musical backstory of each performer, and we discover that there is much more to the magical Mephisto, the Siamese Cerberus “striplets,” and the rest of their curious colleagues than meets the eye. Beautifully stylized, delightfully macabre, The Vaudevillians provides supremely entertaining tastes of the lives of its twisted cast of outcasts and convicts. The fact that these tastes never evolve into fully realized character arcs, and that the musical plays as more of a revue than a character-driven story still does not diminish from the sheer enjoyment of watching this tight ensemble at work.   Hannah Friedman

Lesson in Chaos   City Cafe        ***
Mike Belgrave is a stand-up comic by night and a children's party entertainer by day, and his Free Fringe show looks very much like what he might do at a ten-year-old's birthday. There's a bit of silly jokes, and a bit of singalong, and a bit of magic and a bit of puppetry and a bit of this and a bit of that. He's not outstandingly good at any of them, but he keeps each segment short and generally moves faster than his audience's attention span. He has a good rapport with the kids and can get them responding to his questions or volunteering to be his assistants, and he knows that the most surefire gags are at his own expense, whether it's pretending to misunderstand them so they shout corrections or being bitten on the nose by his puppet parrot. His physical set-up, taking props out of a nondescript suitcase, is not as attractive as a magic box or bag of tricks would be, and he takes a little too long setting up each new bit, sometimes having to recapture everyone's attention all over again. In all, a fairly generic entertainment, offering nothing that others don't do at least as expertly.  Gerald Berkowitz

Lidless   Udderbelly Cowbarn     ****
Lidless is a reminder that much of the theatre seen in Edinburgh is good but not up to the highest standards. Played in a cramped white container, courtesy of designer takis, it grabs viewers by their throats and gives them a good shake-up throughout a gripping hour. The metaphors are deliberate, since the subject of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s play, which has transferred from the Hightide Festival is torture, perpetrated by the Americans at “Gitmo”, as they call Guantanamo Bay. The early scenes are chilling as a pretty blonde officer, aided by an Iraqi-American female medico, forces a prisoner to lose not only his pride but a place in heaven. Fifteen years on, Penny Layden’s interrogator Alice runs a Texan florists and has a happy married life with reformed ex-junkie Lucas (Christian Bradley) and their 14-year-old daughter Rhiannon. Somehow, with assistance from a magic pill that many of us would pay big money for on occasion, Alice has forgotten that section of her past. She receives a big jolt, in a beautifully conceived scene that has echoes of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, as one of her charges Bashir, now a desperately sick man played by Antony Bunsee, comes back to haunt his nemesis. Swiftly, Bashir begins to affect the lives of everyone and particularly Greer Dale-Foulkes’ Rhiannon who finds her world turned upside down. Lidless may not be perfect but it is a fine thriller that puts the spotlight back on to American misbehaviour but balances this by showing the obverse side through the eyes of Dr Riva (Nathalie Armin). This is the kind of work that can have political impact. As such, it is a cut above 99% of the work currently on show in Edinburgh, helped by Steven Atkinson’s excellent direction and a strong cast of whom Penny Layden, Antony Bunsee and Greer Dale-Foulkes all take their opportunity to show off rare talent. Philip Fisher

Little Black Bastard  Gilded Balloon         **
It helps to know coming in that Noel Tovey is a part-Aborigine Australian dancer and choreographer with a long career both in Australia and Britain, who has more recently become a leading spokesman for Aborigine and gay rights, because almost none of that is mentioned in his quiet and, despite some shocking revelations, rather bland and uninvolving monologue of reminiscence. Instead, Tovey speaks almost exclusively about his childhood, telling in his mild monotone of an almost uninterruptedly terrible upbringing, from alcoholic parents through abusive foster parents, spells on the street as a petty thief and rent boy, periods in youth and adult prisons, and sexual abuse at almost every stage. Only in the last five minutes does he join the air force, grow up, impulsively take dance lessons and get a job in a musical comedy chorus, offering some assurance that the rest of his life was not as harrowing as his youth. Despite his title and some passing references to schoolyard bullying, his race (black American father, half-Aborigine mother) doesn't play a large role in his story, which thus becomes almost generic, and those who come in without a previous knowledge of Tovey are likely to leave with little sense of what makes him special. Essentially a summary of the opening chapters of Tovey's autobiography, this presentation might be better suited to book signings than to the theatrical setting.  Gerald Berkowitz

Locherbie    Gilded Balloon     ****
The Pan Am flight that exploded over Locherbie Scotland in December 1988 because of a terrorist bomb in the luggage continues to haunt the world more than two decades later, in no small part because of the determined efforts of Dr. Jim Swire, whose daughter was on the plane, and who has fought governmental foot-dragging and stonewalling, first to bring the Libyan suspects to trial and then, convinced the trial was flawed, to force reexamination of evidence that the real guilt lay elsewhere. David Benson, best known in Edinburgh for more lightly comic solo shows, presents a much more serious face as Swire, showing us in turn the grieving father and the angry campaigner, and in the process presenting Swire's convincing arguments for continuing the search for truth. Speaking purely dramatically, there is an inherent problem built into Benson's script, in that we see the two faces of Swire sequentially, and one or the other is likely to be of more interest and emotional involvement to each viewer. Those - and there will be many in a Scottish audience - for whom Locherbie remains an open sore will be drawn into Swire's exposure of what he sees as a determined effort not to find the truth. Others will find the earlier moments, depicting the father's hearing the news reports, struggling to learn whether it was his daughter's flight that went down and fighting bureaucracy to be allowed to view the body, the most deeply moving, especially when Benson beautifully captures the moments when Swire almost loses it and has to pause to regain his composure. I'm in the latter group, and while I can recommend this show with little reservation, I can't help regretting that the more Benson's Swire becomes an angry lecturer, the less he remains - and the less opportunity Benson has to create - a rounded and sympathetic character.  Gerald Berkowitz

The Lonesome Foxtrot   New Town Theatre      ***
This ambitious adaptation of a Russian story by Andrei Platonov fuses movement with narrative to create a visually arresting show that tells the tale of Fro (Josie Duncan) whose husband Fyodor (Vasily Senin) leaves for the USSR’s Far East to help construct a better future there. Though she knows he is working for the good of all Soviet citizens, Fro cannot stop wanting him back, all the more so knowing that the railway by her home leads directly to him, no matter how many thousands of miles away.  The ideology-heavy yet timeless symbolism of Platonov’s 1936 original transfers well, where trains, telegrams and the future become powerful motifs of simultaneous connection and separation that drive Senin’s design and choreography, creating a parallel universe of elemental forces that drive their human counterparts. A red-clad sprite embodies Fro’s wilfulness, a handheld light evokes the power of a locomotive racing through the night. Real life finally crosses over into the spiritual when Fro and Frodor make love on their final night, showering each other with great bowls of water in a succession of climaxes. In going for the big picture, however, smaller details have been overlooked, resulting in distractions that undermine the whole. A Russian accent is fine, for example, if the character demands it but not if it destroys all articulation. The USSR setting too is of interest but more clues should be given over its relevance to the plot and setting – given what is on offer here, Crewe would be just as evocative. Nevertheless, by final curtain this production wins you over with images that linger long after. Nick Awde

Long Live The King   Assembly          ***
Ansuya Nathan's parents emigrated from India to Australia on the day Elvis Presley died, and that confluence coloured their lives and their daughter's. Well, that wasn't exactly true, as a programme note admits (They arrived a week earlier), but the fiction allows Nathan to examine her parents' lives through the prism of Presley and his songs, from their first blind date, when the Beatles fan gallantly deferred to his future wife's musical taste, through the highs and lows of their years together, for each of which Nathan can find an appropriate and evocative Presley song to serve as emotional touchstone. The details of the story, as alternately comic and touching as they are, are less significant than the way the piece serves as a vehicle for Nathan, who plays all the parts, including the Vegas-era Elvis, as well as narrating. Never really transcending the norms for this genre of solo performance, the piece is perhaps mis-titled and mis-marketed, not really a show for Presley fans but for those responsive to small but touching family dramas.  Gerald Berkowitz

Lost Boy   Space@Venue 45          ****
Theatre with a cause is always powerful, particularly when it is based on a truth so close to home. Teachers turned directors, producers and writers, Christopher Lancaster and Dominic Corey have taken the true story of a past student and made a relevant piece of contemporary theatre. This story follows Tola, a Nigerian boy who has been taken from his home country aged six to live with his so-called aunt and uncle in England. Believing his parents are dead and knowing no better, Tola grows up as a slave boy in return for a British education, subject to mental and physical abuse. However, when he is no longer eligible for child benefit he is thrown out without any documentation and subsequently faces the blind bureaucracy of the home office, who reject his appeals for residency. This throws young Tola into a whirlwind of emotional turmoil; questioning his very existence and identity. We follow Tola’s quest to find his heritage in Nigeria as well as gain papers to continue on with education in the UK, all the while questioning our own ignorance of the situation. The script is beautiful in its simplicity with the youth of the cast reflecting the honesty of the piece and the naivety of Tola. Oluwaseyi Idowu as Tola displays raw talent and a commanding stage presence, whilst Bryony Bonekyn’s gentle and calming performance as a sympathetic teacher is complemented by perceptive direction. Dream sequences illustrating Tola’s tortured innocence juxtaposed with torrents of abuse from his ‘family’ create an engaging rhythm and dynamic to the play; throwing the audience vicariously into the turbulence of Tola’s world. With over 200 cases of child trafficking discovered in 2009 alone, this increasingly relevant and serious issue is portrayed with sensitivity and heartfelt compassion by Park View Comprehensive School.  Georgina Evenden

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(Some of these reviews appeared first in The Stage.)

Reviews - Edinburgh Festival - 2010