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 The Theatreguide.London Reviews


The several simultaneous events that make up 'The Edinburgh Festival' - the International Festival, the Fringe, the Comedy Festival, etc. - bring thousands of shows and performers to the Scottish capital each August. No one can see more than a fraction of what's on offer, but with our experienced reviewing team we reviewed 150 of the best.

Virtually all of these shows will tour after Edinburgh, and many will come to London, making the Festival a unique preview of the year. 

We give star ratings in Edinburgh, since festival goers have shown a preference for such shorthand guides. Ratings range from Five Stars (A Must-See) down to One Star (Demand your money and an hour of your life back), though we urge you to look past the stars to read the accompanying review.

Since serendipity is one of the delights of the Festival, we list all our reviews together so you can browse and perhaps discover something beyond what you were looking for. This list is divided into two pages, in alphabetical order (soloists by last name), with A-L on another page and M-Z here.

Scroll down this page for our review of  

MacBraveheart, Malasombra, Mallory Beyond Everest, Men In The Cities, Minetti, My Name Is Saoirse, My Week Beats Your Year, Naked In Alaska, The Next Big Thing, Normal/Madness,

Outings, Oxford Revue, Party In The USA, Pint Size, The Pitiless Storm,
The Player's Advice To Shakespeare, Pomme Is French For Apple, Pope Head, Private Peaceful, Pss Pss, The Pure The Dead And The Brilliant, Red Bastard, Refresh, riverrun, The Ruby Dolls, Running Into Me,

Sanitise, A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts, Shakespeare For Breakfast, Show 6, Siddhartha, The Silence of Snow, Silent Voice, Sleeping Beauty, SmallWar, Smarty Pants, So It Goes, Something's In The Living Room, Sonics In Duum, Spine, Spoiling, Swimming, Symphony,

This Is Living, 300 To One, Thrill Me, The Time Of Our Lies, Title And Deed, The Tommy Cooper Show, Trainspotting, Travesti, The Trial Of Jane Fonda, Unfaithful, Voca People, Beth Vyse,

We Have Fallen, What Do You Mean, Where The World Is Going, A World Beyond Man, Years To The Day, Your Fragrant Phantom,  Zelda The Last Flapper, The Zulu

Go to first Edinburgh A-L Page.

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MacBraveheart - The Other Scottish Play   Assembly Rooms      ****
Barely more than an extended revue sketch, this forty-minute jape packs in more legitimate laughs than many longer comedies and might even have a bit of a political statement in there somewhere. Though warned by a malaprop-prone ('Beware the tides that march') Robbie Burns, William Wallace is lured by a witch who would be queen to kill The Bruce and become king, only to discover that a democratic movement led by The Salmond wants to replace traditional Scottish methods of fighting for independence with voting, which makes kingship no fun. So, to recap, writer Philip Differ manages in well under an hour to lampoon Macbeth, Braveheart, Burns, Salmond, the independence movement, the language ('You have to look at the bigger pilchard') and, with rampant anachronisms and modern references, the whole genre of historical drama. And in a concentrated form that allows little dead space between gags, it's an uninterrupted delight. Directed by the playwright, Gerry McLaughlin, Scarlet Mack and James McAnerney keep tongues firmly in cheek while delivering high energy low comic performances, and you should be sure to stay for the Q&A afterwards.  Gerald Berkowitz

Malasombra   Summerhall      ***
The sun is up in glorious animation on a huge screen covering the whole back of the stage. Cue bouncy soundtrack, and a happy, impish individual bounds on and dances gleefully with her shadow in perfect harmony. But then the music changes and the mood shifts. The shadow begins to make movements of its own, and soon splits from its owner to dance on its own accord. With a will of its own, the shadow starts to explore deeper and darker desires and so unleashes the Dr Caligari-like evil shadow, the Malasombra of the title. The battle to bring back the sun and to banish Malasombra back into the night proves to be an energetic feast of sound and movement as the characters pursue and dodge each other through a spectacular kaleidoscope of shadow play via eerie buildings, shifting cages and dance routines. With a constant soundtrack alternating from trippy synth pads to choppy guitar chords to accentuate the drama, the combination makes for a nightmarish yet dreamily evocative world of light and dark. However, that richness also poses the awkward question of what exactly are we seeing in Aument’s inventive show. The animation fuses with the live shadow play so tightly that it begs the question of whether we need the actors at all here – particularly when shadow play routines become part of the animation itself. On the live side, while visually arresting, the set pieces are repetitive and the movement tends to be sloppy which is distracting. No matter since, the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, this is a deservedly inspired show which already has its fans.  Nick Awde 

Mallory: Beyond Everest   C Nova      **
In 1924 British climbers George Mallory and Sandy Irvine may have reached the summit of Everest, but as both died on the way down their achievement could not be verified. John Burns' self-written solo piece imagines that Mallory survived to affirm his success and to tell the life story that led to it. The biographical material builds on the idea that Mallory was a thrill-seeker and danger junkie from childhood who found his outlet in climbing despite an otherwise ordinary life as husband, father and schoolmaster. Burns' one attempt at analysis or mythologising takes the form of frequent references to Ahab and the white whale, suggesting obsession as something beyond explanation. The stage presentation is simple, Burns moving among a few pieces of furniture and occasionally writing one of the names he mentions on a blackboard. (Show publicity mentions archival films, but none appeared in the Edinburgh run.) Despite occasional gestures toward dramatising episodes, this remains less a theatrical event than a narrative and lecture by one who is more an enthusiast than trained performer, and an hour that is at best more informative than evocative or entertaining.   Gerald Berkowitz

Men In The Cities   Traverse      **
Chris Goode's monologue takes his familiar mode of storytelling into new and much darker territory with only limited success, hampered in part by a fragmented narrative that doesn't hang together or build in effect as much as he would wish, and in part by his and director Wendy Hubbard's decision to curtail his usual charm as a performer, leaving too little connection with the audience. A dozen or more characters, ranging from a ten-year-old boy to a pensioner to the author-narrator himself, try to make it through their days. Several are gay, most are unhappy (no causal connection there). Someone is titillated by erotic art, someone envies the seeming happiness of porn actors, someone pities the infirmities of his aged father, someone kills himself, someone just disappears. One man is haunted by the memory of a forty year old crime and resentful of the memory for haunting him, while Chris the writer of all this resents his characters for being so hard to write. References to doomed Malaysian flights, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Lee Rigby and Yewtree anchor the stories in the very contemporary world, and the monologue is dotted with images and phrases that reflect Goode's attractive imagination and way with words – a man who takes inordinate pleasure in hitting the snooze button on his alarm because these days a man doesn't get to hit much, an old married couple holding a conversation entirely in catch phrases they've used a million times before, an architect who designs buildings designed not to be noticed. It is a deliberately fragmented mosaic, but too fragmented, never coming together to create a clear picture or pattern as a mosaic should. And as a performer Goode resembles some jazz musicians in metaphorically turning his back on the audience to play for his own pleasure and merely tolerate our listening in. For a storyteller who normally has a warm rapport with the audience this is clearly a deliberate choice but a dangerous one, and you are as likely to find yourself feeling excluded from the tales he tells as drawn into them.  Gerald Berkowitz

Minetti   Lyceum Theatre      ****
Thomas Bernhard's play, as adapted by director Tom Cairns and actor Peter Eyre, is an exercise in the gradual exposure of a man as not what he pretends to be or believes he is, achieved by simply letting him talk. The character played by Eyre enters a hotel lobby on New Year's Eve and immediately and repeatedly announces to all that he is a famous actor, here to meet the artistic director of a major theatre and arrange to play King Lear. As he talks, interrupted only by occasional brief responses by the listeners and by the passage through the lobby of various guests and revellers, another story begins to emerge. He turned his back on classical roles thirty years ago; no, he quit the stage entirely; no, he was fired in disgrace and actually hasn't acted since. He doesn't even have any evidence of the appointment with the director, who unsurprisingly proves as elusive as Godot. The man does sincerely believe in some of the philosophical and aesthetic positions he voices, about the isolation and purity of the artist, but is desperately fighting the realisation that he is not the one to voice them, and his sanity-threatening resistance to self-knowledge bears some parallels to King Lear. In what amounts to an all-but-uninterrupted monologue, Peter Eyre matches the text by only gradually and subtly removing layers of the man's self-protective illusions and exposing his fragility and desperation. He is supported in largely silent roles by Sian Thomas, Victoria Pollack, Steven Beard and a large cast of passers-by. (Incidentally, Minetti is the name of an actual German actor, who bears no other resemblance to this one. It's an in-joke by Bernhard, much as a British playwright might name a failed actor McKellan.)  Gerald Berkowitz

My Name Is Saoirse   Just Festival      ***
Set in Ireland in the late 80s, an unassuming girl comes of age. By her own admission, Saoirse is of little talent and her life is uneventful and, except for her attractive wayward mate Siobhan, there’s not much around to lead her astray. With every year she grows older and, though surrounded by family, friends and community, she’s floating through life yet enjoying it in her own quiet way. That vulnerability exposes her to the teenage influence of Siobhan who is turning from precocious schoolgirl into party-loving school-leaver. And so Saoirse just seems to fall into getting pregnant and then taking the UK ferry for a secret abortion in London – remember that Ireland was even more draconian on abortion than it is today. Performing her own script, Eva O'Connor plays out a gentle monologue that boldly avoids excess or moralising and is all the more powerful for it. She brings it to life with spot-on depictions of characters such as the feisty if louche Siobhan and the laid-back Northern Irish nurse at the clinic. What lets things down, however, is Hildegard Ryan’s direction, which is solo show done by numbers, limited to shifting otherwise static actor from point A to point B every five minutes. Saoirse’s awkwardness becomes, well, just awkward and unfairly restrains O’Connor’s central narrator – for proof one need only witness how she lights up in the rare moments when she is permitted to move while speaking, offering a glimpse of the real potential of this promising production.   Nick Awde

My Week Beats Your Year   The Whole Works      ****
The influence of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground in the UK was and is huge – and possibly far greater proportionately than in the US, where initially  it seemed that anything new in popular music in the late 60s was viewed as suspect or foreign unless it came out of Tin Pan Alley or Harlem. But over here, generation after generation heard the clarion call to arms, to celebrate a wild side that, for most, could exist only in our imaginations, and vividly so. Kids in the early 70s were a select breed of converts, of which Roy Moller was one. He grew up to be a guitarist and singer-songwriter – what else? – and, as we learn from this read-through of his new musical about Lou, the spark’s still burning. In flowing couplets Moller tells of his impassioned and frequently funny road trip of growing up in Leith, curious about the musical phenomenon happening over on the grittier side of the water. There’s the thrill of discovering Lou’s records, his UK gigs – and the strange sensation that London was far away as Manhattan – and, like something out of Hermann Hesse, Moller finds a new revelation in Lou’s legacy with every step he takes in his own life. The songs themselves are catchy, alternately driving/sweet songs about Lou, Leith and Life – funny yet passionate, with unexpected turns of phrase that surprise and get you thinking. In homage to his hero, Moller even finds that majestic irony in Lou’s dark heroin days and his own nostalgia. At his side is Antifolk supremo Lach, who brings his own experience of that NYC otherworld to inspired guitar and vocal accompaniment - and a range of strange sound effects. On a couple of wonderfully laconic songs he sings lead, his clear tones making an evocative counterpoint for Moller’s gruffer vocals. There’s immense touring potential for My Week Beats Your Year, whether as an intimate song cycle or a fully fledged stage show along the lines of Taboo.   Nick Awde

Naked In Alaska   Assembly Roxy      ***
At a bit of a loss after being evicted from her flat, 21-year-old Valerie lands a job in a strip joint. The money is tempting, the idea of going onto the stage even more so, and she takes the leap with enthusiasm. What transpires, however, over the following ten years is an intense roadtrip through the strip/pole/table/lap dancing clubs of America’s West Coast. Based on her own life experiences, Valerie Hager creates a convincing portrait of a woman who just wants to be taken on her own terms, but who has ended up in the wrong environment to do this. She wants to be heard, seen and appreciated for herself, even when she’s lapdancing for violent customers or having her prime slots stolen by the new girl on the block but, although not exactly trapped, she can’t, won’t leave – if only because she’s good at what she does. Empowerment is not exactly on the cards. Teamed with director Scott Wesley Slavin, Hager has created a compelling, evocative portrait from her own script where she brings a strong physical side that flows with the dialogue to highlight the dialogue, and so things avoid falling into the over-sensuality that a more dance-oriented piece would bring. That’s good, because this way the sleaze doesn’t become a distracting motif but a setting that drives the plot. It would be good to see Hager apply this layering to other productions. The larger than life characters who inhabit Valerie’s netherworld are similarly conjured realistically without descending to gritty caricature or wild parody. However, scriptwise a shakeup is needed to give those characters greater prominence – for otherwise the story remains a linear diary, a sequence of events linked only by Valerie’s central voice, with little context to frame what she has learned on her journey. Nevertheless, this is an intelligent and energetic walk on the wild side that avoids wallowing in self-pity and finally gets to hit that empowerment button.  Nick Awde

The Next Big Thing   Space@North Bridge      ****
This amiable small-scale musical by David Kent breaks no new ground – virtually everything in its story, characters and songs can be footnoted to other works – but it is fun and harmless and the occasion for a pair of attractive performances. There might even be the seeds for an expansion into a full-length and larger-cast version here. A would-be novelist is blocked until one of her characters comes alive, though the demure Mills & Boon heroine she had imagined is a six-foot-something blowsy blonde with an adam's apple and a load of attitude. The character tries not only to control the direction her novel takes but to inspire her creator with some of her ballsy energy, and when her magical power extends into the real world the two end up wrestling over both fiction and reality. With titles like A Formula For Love and You Have To Go A Little Crazy, David Kent's pop-based songs have the catchiness and gently ironic tone of Liza-era Kander and Ebb. Rebecca Ridout gives the novelist just the right level of nerdy cuteness and holds her own against the all-stops-out drag performance of Dereck Walker.  Gerald Berkowitz

Night Bus   Pleasance     ***
Linda Marlowe and Sarah-Louise Young wrote and play a dozen or so characters each in this kaleidoscopic view of the sorts of people likely to be found on an all-night bus. You can probably guess some of them – a dotty old lady chattering away at anyone within earshot, a hoodie harassing a single girl, and the like. There are easy jokes – a driver passing the test by proving his hatred for the public – and more complex ones – the single girl has a magical app that lets her control the hoodie. There's easy sentiment – a posh woman gradually exposing the emptiness of her life – and more nuanced portraits, like the City gent revelling in his secret life as a midnight transvestite. A conversation between two bus spotters becomes a mini Pinter play. But the whole thing is too tepid and tame. The comedy should be funnier, the pathos sadder, the ironies sharper, the outrage angrier, the shocks scarier. This is a fine showcase for the two excellent actresses, but it is theatre-lite, with too little flavour.  Gerald Berkowitz

Normal/Madness   Pleasance      ***
Fiona Geddes' monologue is in the voice of the daughter of a schizophrenic mother, telling how her mother's illness coloured her childhood and continues to impact on her adult life. The subject has an inherent gravity and emotional power, but Geddes' presentation, as writer and performer, does little to enhance it. Oddly, most of the examples her speaker chooses to illustrate her mother's illness don't seem to do that at all. She was occasionally overprotective of her child, she didn't warm to her daughter's boyfriend, she phones at inconvenient moments, she gives her daughter chores when she visits rather than waiting on her, she offers cogent arguments against being given electric shock therapy. Other examples do show mental illness, and the speaker's torment over whether she herself dare have children is particularly moving. But much of the story comes across as standard mother-daughter tensions and if Geddes' purpose were not so unambiguously to cast the speaker as victim, you might suspect that the play was really about a selfish and resentful daughter. Fiona Geddes does succeed as performer in making the story seem so real and personal that you might be surprised to read the programme and discover that speaker and actress are not the same.  Gerald Berkowitz

Outings   Gilded Balloon      ****
A cast made up of stand-up comics – four regulars and a guest – present the testimonies of men and women who faced the challenge of acknowledging their homosexuality to themselves and others, as compiled by Thomas Hescott and Matthew Baldwin. There are sad tales of outrage and rejection by parents and accounts of parents who were surprisingly casual and supportive. One particularly happy story has the son so let down by his mother's calm acceptance that she volunteers to replay the scene with mock melodrama. The outings of celebrities and politicians are noted, and a report from Nepal and the words of the last British soldier to be prosecuted for being gay are reminders that being who you are can still be a political act. Almost everyone quoted had some inkling of their sexuality as pre-teens, boys generally have a worse time with school bullies than girls, and the generation that grew up with the internet suffered far less than their elders from feelings of being unique and isolated. Presentation could not be simpler, as the actors take turns stepping forward and reading from their scripts, and while this barely qualifies as a theatrical work, it should tour schools and church groups until the day it is no longer needed. Gerald Berkowitz

The Oxford Revue - Happy Accidents   Underbelly      **
For a time it seems that the current Oxford revue might be striving for a record of sorts – the first undergraduate revue ever to be completely devoid of laughs. They do get to some legitimate funniness eventually, most fully in a final sketch that sticks a Brief Encounter-style weepie into a constantly buffering YouTube, but this has to be one of the weakest Oxford entries in the revue stakes ever. Sketch after sketch either goes nowhere (trying to do the voices in a children's book) or was dead at birth (telling a bad joke badly). The theatre director demanding passion from his banker is worth a chuckle, the sock puppet version of Beowulf doesn't do enough with its silly premise, but the bits that work are too few and not strong enough to carry you over the many that don't. Gerald Berkowitz

Party In The USA!   Underbelly      ****
Satire is often its own worst enemy. In this case there’s the unlikely title, the poster and the first five minutes of this show – all authentically screaming the excruciating sort of party-disco-beer culture that must be avoided at any cost. And then the real show kicks in, and you get it. The ‘it’ being a wonderfully dippy satire on capitalism and the American Dream, carried out with the bouncy acerbity that possibly only New Yorkers can get away with. And of course, you realise, the title’s a sly swipe at Miley Cyrus-culture. So, bringing you up to speed, a group of slackers have blagged their way into the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue, their mission, to drink bad beer and boogie to bad party music until they drop – or until the authorities come knocking. It’s 2008, the eve of the world credit crunch, and one of their number feels there’s a life out there and somehow ends up in the belly of beast as an intern at an international bank where he drops acid, decides to save the world and… well, somehow the whole global crisis, Obama’s presidential campaign, an illicit office romance, Bud Light Lime, strudel and a whole lot of other stuff get thrown into the mix and somehow it all makes sense by the gloriously improbable finale. The genius of JV Squad lies in making a rock-solid script look like 75 minutes of sustained chaos as the six actors and one musician keep the comedy coming in droves and they never once miss a beat in David McGee’s offbeat satirical message. Admittedly this is not everyone’s cup of tea, but with a little of the US politics pruned, there is a ready audience both here and in Europe.  Nick Awde

Pint Size   Free Sisters      ****
Performing on the top deck of a stationary bus, this enterprising all-women company offers three brief comedies by Lexy Howe that are sparkling entertainment while also, almost in passing, making a quietly ironic comment on women's roles in the 1950s. Three very different women describe their parallel romances only to work out that they're talking about the same man and to plot a macabre revenge. Three incompatible girls' group leaders, inner city, posh and hippie, get lost on a combined woodland trek and fall out. And the staff of a village beauty parlour try to scare a newcomer with tales of a witch's curse only to have the tables turned on them. In each case, along with the basic comic situation, much of the fun comes from having distinct and contrasting characters thrown together to bounce off each other. Each playlet is satisfyingly comic and each makes its satirical point in the archetypal characters, while the combined program serves as an excellent showcase for the three actresses, Ffion Jones, May Phillips and Lexy Howe, who each get to play three very different but equally comic and fully realised roles.  Gerald Berkowitz

The Pitiless Storm   Assembly Rooms      ***
A barely-disguised argument for Scottish independence, Chris Dolan's monologue play, instigated and performed by Glasgow actor and ardent pro-Yes campaigner David Hayman, presents a Scottish union worker preparing his speech for the dinner celebrating his receiving an OBE. At first proud of the award, he keeps hearing the voices of his socialist father, activist wife and idealistic younger self arguing that the British government has corrupted everything he spent his life fighting for, and finds himself rejecting the OBE and arguing that an independent Scotland can be a pure embodiment of all that is just and right and a moral leader for the world. The logic of that leap may be a bit murky, but Hayman captures the emotional confusion and ultimate re-dedication of the man. Hayman is a skilled and popular performer that even the No-voting Scots in the audience warm to, and the play is scheduled for a whirlwind Scottish tour right up to voting day. Whether it will have any life or relevance after that is another question. Hayman follows the fifty-minute play with a fifteen-minute Q&A session which he uses to make his pro-Independence argument even more directly and openly.  Gerald Berkowitz

The Player's Advice To Shakespeare   C Too      ****
This is a curious play because its subject and its power really don't depend on involving Shakespeare or even a Player – they're just hooks on which to hang a play about something else. In the early Seventeenth Century the price of wool went up and English landowners violated centuries of tradition by closing off what had been common land to graze sheep, dispossessing tenant farmers. The narrator of Brian K. Stewart's play is an actor in Shakespeare's company  driven to leave London and join in the demonstrations/riots against the enclosures, and the bulk of his monologue is devoted to his adventures as rioter and fugitive. The Shakespeare connection comes in when he returns to London hoping to talk Will into writing about this, only to be reminded that the always-conservative Shakespeare is more likely to condemn a mob (c.f. Coriolanus) than support it. If any faint alarm bells are ringing in your head, you may be reminded of Edward Bond's Bingo, set a few years later when the retired Shakespeare, back in Stratford, did side with the local landowners. Stewart's play is an easily digestible lesson in an all-but-forgotten bit of history, a reminder of Shakespeare's conservatism, and a solid vehicle for Canadian actor David Warburton, who holds us through what is not automatically gripping material with his charm and forceful playing, convincing us that if this character finds the story significant we should too.  Gerald Berkowitz

Pomme Is French For Apple   Underbelly      ****
That may very well be, but Pom (more improperly pom-pom) is mildly obscene Jamaican slang for a lady's naughty bits, and writer-performers Liza Paul and Bahia Watson use that as the basis for a comic and insightful West Indian variant on The Vagina Monologues. The two play an uptight woman and a more liberal one comparing sex lives, debate the hair issue or argue over douching. A lady preacher works herself up into orgasmic frenzy and, with a clever bit of costume manipulation, we get to hear the views of some talking poms on such topics as panties (yes or no?) and being licked (how obligatory?). The only weakness in the show is that they keep wandering off subject to loosely related and somewhat overfamiliar topics like good and bad kissing techniques, a mother's exaggerated horror when her teen daughter wants to start dating, the sexism implicit in high heels and other women's fashions designed for men's eyes, or an admittedly very funny catalogue of men's come-on lines. Rarely anything less than entertaining, the show would be even stronger with a tighter focus.  Gerald Berkowitz

Pope Head: The Secret Life Of Francis Bacon   Ryrie's Bar Upstairs      **
Francis Bacon's life was never all that secret, and this monologue written and performed by Garry Roost breaks little new ground in having the painter tell us as much about his sexual – largely rough trade – and criminal – pocket picking and small thefts in his leaner years – lives as about his art. Roost meanders through Bacon's life and ideas in roughly chronological order, much as he meanders seemingly without pattern around the small stage and behind and between the panels that serve as backdrop. Abrupt shifts in topic give the piece a disconnected feel, and although many aspects of the painter's life are covered, they never really combine into a unified image, nor does any one – the sexual, say, or the catalogue of his friends and enemies – illuminate any of the others. As directed by Paul Garnault, Roost's performance is broad and aggressive, appropriate to his subject, but a tendency to accompany every phrase with a gesture or grimace leads to a somewhat artificial and mannered effect. The title refers to a famous Bacon painting, which Roost has him cite as an attempt to capture the inner man as much as the outer, but this theatrical portrait remains external and disjointed, with little sense of the whole man.  Gerald Berkowitz

Private Peaceful   Underbelly      ****  (reviewed at a previous festival)
Fighting sleep as the precious minutes tick away on his watch, which has its own tale, Private Tommo Peaceful has a story that he must tell us. How he grew up as a farmboy in the rural west country, how he played with his elder brother Charlie, how he fell for local girl Molly, lost Molly to his brother, volunteered to fight the Bosch in Flanders with Charlie, pretending to be his twin while clearly under-age. We share in the camaraderie at boot camp although loyalty to one’s comrades already proves to have its dangers. At the front, though no ingenue, Tommo feels wonder at new experiences such as watching a dogfight – just as when in England he saw his first airplane – before the lice, rats, gas attacks and death take over in the insanity of the Ypres Salient. And out there in no-man’s land he now suspects his fate awaits. The genius in this adaptation by director Simon Reade from Michael Malpurgo’s bestselling book lies in the gentle contrast of Tommo’s life before and after going to the trenches. In many respects Tommo does not change despite the horror, and he still keeps hope – not as a heroic figure of tragedy but as someone as ordinary as you and I. Much more than the history of the Peaceful brothers, this is a celebration of the community, where there is more bravery in looking out for one’s fellow than attacking another. Nick Awde

Pss Pss   Zoo      *****
Two motley performers. A couple of apples, a banana, a stepladder. No dialogue. All not necessarily at the same time. One hour 15 minutes. A daunting prospect for even the most diehard of physical/clown aficionados. But watch what happens when double act Baccala Clown notice there’s an audience watching them... What follows is an extraordinary, riveting three-way experience where the clowns vie with each other to impress their newly discovered audience, while the audience finds itself a part of the show, urging the pair on out of sheer wonder over what they’ll come up with next. Finding an apple leads to a polite tussle over who can first show their chops with the unfortunate fruit. The delighted rivalry between Camilla Pessi and Simone Fassari is so infectious that we find ourselves applauding the clown who has juggled a mere single round with a single apple. And then we roar our anticipation when a second apple is discovered and the stakes are upped. Sharing a banana leads to tense, magical slapstick and the sudden appearance of a tantalising trapeze. Mix in a musical stepladder and an oompah-pah waltz and somehow you have one of the most magical shows on the circuit. Directed by Louis Spagna, Swiss-based Pessi and Fassari work with focused yet always fluid movement, their faces producing expressions you could catch from the back of a hall ten times bigger, projecting an innocent, minimalistic knowingness that is more Keaton than Chaplin. Like Keaton too they use space – physical and temporal – to set a beat for the comedy, and get real laughs while setting up a compelling narrative. Less has rarely appeared to be so much more, and rarely this much fun.  Nick Awde 

The Pure, The Dead And The Brilliant   Assembly Rooms      *****
It's once upon a time Hogmanay, and Scotland’s evil faeries have gathered for a wee drink or two. As the drink flows, Bogle (Paul J Corrigan), Banshee (Elaine C Smith), Selkie (Michele Gallagher) and Black Donald (Martin McCormick), who for centuries have steered the course of Scotland’s history via their insatiable appetite for mayhem, confess to some concern over the nation’s proposed independence. The party dissolves into a gloriously chaotic debate as the hapless quartet bicker over whether a resounding Yes means they’ll inherit their own personal playground to plague – or will they become like the dinosaurs? This is an infectious musical hall, almost Theatre Workshop romp which has the characters skilfully setting up their larger than life tics and agendas the second they bound onstage, allowing that showmanship to deliver the politics at gut level by keeping the laughs coming. Alan Bissett’s hi-octane (and exquisitely researched) script keeps you guessing where the argument will land next, playing with the audience’s expectations as one faerie makes a convincing case only to be upended by another. Meanwhile Sacha Kyle’s inclusive direction ensures that the actors channel all that energy into the enthusiastic audience for panto-like interaction. After September, there may or may not be the touring potential that this magically paced satire deserves. So get your ticket quickly to witness an example of political theatre that embodies the power of the stage to empower the people though satire – an art as dark and ancient as the faeries themselves.   Nick Awde

Red Bastard   Pleasance      ****  (reviewed at a previous festival)
Lecoq is a liberating theatre concept that allows the performer to reach out into their adoring audience. Bullying that same audience into submission is another way of looking at it. Gleefully, Red Bastard (aka Eric Davis) takes on board both attitudes to further his mission to educate us in his demented master class on the art of performance. And let no one deny he has the chops, having earned his blue ribbon as a Lecoq bouffon – the clown who taunts the audience - as well as a stint at Cirque du Soleil. Absurd yet menacing in red body suit, Red Bastard is all leering face, spindly legs and supersize belly and bum. His assertion that 'something must happen every ten seconds' is a threat and a challenge to the audience as it rapidly sinks in that we are the show. He prowls the benches in search of fresh victims who will pass or fail the exacting steps to artistic perfection that he expects of us all. Traps are strewn, where any answer incurs a damning, chiding 'wrong!' and a forfeit incurred or even ejection from the theatre (an action that morally oversteps the mark unless the ejected audience members are plants - to discuss). There is no hiding in the back rows either as the Bastard’s simple Simon routines involve everyone, his beady eye ever watchful for dissenters in need of more forfeits. Grotesque yet magnificent in his life-affirming irony (important note: don’t confuse this with satire), Red Bastard channels theatre and comedy, fear and delight, ignorance and education to create a truly unique audience experience. Nick Awde

Refresh: Stories Of Love, Sex And The Internet   Space@Surgeons' Hall      ***
Growing up was never simple, but for young people today their rites of passage seem to be doubly complicated given that they take place as much online as off. Although we never see what he sees on his laptop, Matthew Schott evokes with crystal, gently humorous clarity the virtual reality of passing from early teendom to young adulthood via the internet. We meet a schoolboy who turns to his router for answers to his nascent dreams of romance with the opposite sex. In between online gaming and the torrent of social media, that journey of discovery leads from awkward emails involving teenage crushes to chatroom flirting, hot chatroom action and receiving pussy selfies. As the years pass, the vignettes of a child’s impressions turn to full scenes of action, the pieces becoming longer and more complete with experience and age. Somehow, somewhere Pokemen has turned to porn. Schott engages from the start, winning you over to his loner protagonist while playing the various characters he encounters with the subtlest of gestures and intonation. Director Julia Katz ensures that the right mix of humour, insight and even suspense keep up the pace of this picaresque monologue, penned by Schott, to produce an inventive, thoughtful examination of the modern cyber morals that affect us all. With more work done on the intrusive voiceovers, this is a production that has a tour circuit somewhere out there eagerly awaiting.  Nick Awde

riverrun   Traverse      *****
In a remarkable achievement of literary analysis, editing, interpretation and performance Irish actress Olwen Fouéré draws out of James Joyce's all-but-unintelligible prose poem of a novel Finnegans Wake a coherent and evocative narrative line, the basis for a bravura performance in the once-in-a-lifetime class. Written in one mad swoop of verbiage and in a style thickly crusted with dialect, puns, spoonerisms and other word play, Finnegans Wake does at various points follow and give voice to the River Liffey as it flows to the sea, and it is this line that Fouéré traces, picking up the river on a morning as it sees and hears the things around it – swooping birds, snatches of human conversation and thought, advertising billboards and the like. Eventually it zeroes in on a pair of men fishing from a boat on its surface, and finally, in the passionate voice of a woman rushing to her lover, merges with the sea. Merely finding that narrative line is a remarkable accomplishment – plenty of English professors have done less – but Fouéré then translates it into performance, fully recognising that the music of Joyce's language is as important as its content. Using her voice as a jazz instrument, she swoops, growls and howls, whispers and shouts, runs the full gamut of notes, even just breathes at different volume and timbres, so that a sizeable percentage of the text could come through even if you didn't understand English. But you do, and she does, and she knows when Joyce is being descriptive or poetic or onomatopoetic or telling actual jokes, and guides the audience to follow him. Of course various bits of her hour are likely to reach you as contentless music, some moments will lure you to tune out, and your overall experience may be more impressionistic than literal, but that, too, is part of Joyce's intention. This is pure theatre – one woman, one stage, one audience, an extraordinary text, and a performance of genius. Gerald Berkowitz

The Ruby Dolls - Fabulous Creatures   Assembly Checkpoint      ***
This showcase for the quartet called the Ruby Dolls is either a feminist tract masquerading as a light musical comedy or a light musical comedy with a feminist message uncomfortably grafted on it. In either case, audiences are likely to respond more to one side of the show or the other rather than the whole. Entering in their mock-glamorous personas as cabaret divas, the Dolls (Susanna Fiore, Jessica Sedler, Rebecca Shanks, Tara Siddall) announce that they are going to do a musical version of Middlemarch, but not as we know it, since Mary Poppins and goats will play major roles. The story has heroine Fanny (much sniggering at the name) told that she and all women are part goat and that before she can get the man she loves she must win a talent contest (Britain's Goat Talent) and undergo an unspecified procedure to assure her subservient position. Benjamin Cox's music footnotes theatre composers from Porter through Schwartz to the inevitable Sondheim and ALW, and there's one open parody of pop diva anthems. Abigail Burdess's lyrics make no impression, and the book by Abigail and Dominic Burdess is not the show's strongest point. Between the talent show parody, what appears to be a buried reference to FGM (but so buried most in the audience don't see it), a plot line that has Fanny get so involved in winning that she forgets the prize, and an attempt to maintain a tension between the Dolls' 'real' personalities and their roles, the show is something of a jumble, and audiences could be excused for – depending on their political commitment – either cheering on the sisters in their ultimate rebellion against the patriarchy or tuning out of the story and just enjoying the vaguely familiar-sounding songs and the personable performers.  Gerald Berkowitz

Running Into Me   Underbelly      ****
Vickie Tanner clearly has ability and promise, but the fact that she’s growing up in California’s notorious inner city Compton – crime, drugs, unemployment and all – means there’s not much expectation of her. At home and at school there’s little on offer for escape, where the other girls dream of Kim Kardashian, and where drive-by shootings are nothing compared to the fatal hit of the pervasive ignorance towards education. When Tanner somehow lands in a good school, she at least has the wit to work out that she doesn’t have the tools to engage – ditto university – and so begins her often humorous battle to work her way into the system, her worst enemy being herself. Somehow she floats out of the quicksand yet ends up in a quick-fix rut by always seeking to be on the move, through school, drama and part-time jobs until a move to New York sees waitressing and improbable conceptual dance leading her to an epiphany.  This is no feelgood escape outta the hood, there’s no convenient role model hero to get her out, and the word empowerment isn’t mentioned once – and in a way, the most shocking moment is when Vickie politely listens as her six-year-old nephew sings a gangsta lullaby. What you do get is a highly intelligent but heartfelt argument that there is hope at the end of the tunnel – and it’ll come when you least expect it. Vickie Tanner has set up a neat set of interlocking scenes, employing many of the styles and genres in which she has worked over her career. With director Padraic Lillis, she has created a fusion of these to create a stripped-down piece that still fills the stage physically and verbally. With a few culturally-bound modifications to the script and some directorial tweaks to avert tour fatigue, Running into Me deserves to play way beyond the regular theatre circuit, spreading its insights to schools and colleges – and, indeed, prisons and detention centres.  Nick Awde

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Sanitise   Underbelly      **
A mime and dance piece set in a bathroom allows Melanie Jordan to play a woman who cleans with OCD obsessiveness, flirts briefly with the idea of letting go and enjoying the freedom of a little dirt, and is so traumatised by the experiment that she races back to the comfort of compulsive scrubbing and polishing. But Jordan's mime and dance, as directed by Caitlin Skinner, are so weak in narration or characterisation that almost all the communication in the piece depends on deliberately crude animations by Lubin Lone projected on the shower curtain and depicting the character's thoughts or the backstory behind her actions. Despite her cleanliness fetish the woman keeps a half-eaten sandwich hidden in the bathroom, and it is the animation and not the actress that explains why, and later her nightmarish imagining of how dirty she has become is all there in the projection and not the performance. With Jordan unable to bring much meaning to unassisted sequences, like one involving the delivery of a dominatrix costume, and with a too-slow pacing that leaves blank spaces – with Jordan just sitting there looking blank – between episodes, there is simply too little here to hold an audience through an hour.  Gerald Berkowitz

A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts   King's Hall      **
This show is a bit of a fraud. That may not bother you, but it's something you should be aware of. The Lyric Hammersmith company offers this as an exercise in improvisation, but in fact it is a structured and scripted show with only one significant variable from night to night. At the start of the show one cast member's name is legitimately picked from a hat to be the central figure, who then undergoes a string of encounters with the others. These range from physical challenges (Bend a steel bar, eat a lemon) to symbolic acts (Wrestle with your demons by wrestling with one of us) to playing a scene from Romeo and Juliet. The running order of scenes is posted on the wall, and it is clear that everyone has been rehearsed to work around whoever is picked to star on any evening. So, except for the necessary switching of roles and perhaps the stray ad lib or minor variant on the rehearsed script, the same things will happen at every show. They aren't even particularly or increasingly impossible - the show closes with some line dancing to Tina Turner that only requires the rehearsal it's obviously had. That wouldn't matter if what happened were funny or meaningful or particularly inventive, but most of the set pieces are just rehearsal warm-up exercises without any content, their only claim on our attention being the pretence of spontaneity or depth.  Gerald Berkowitz

Shakespeare For Breakfast   C Chambers Street     ****
Twenty-odd years ago a Fringe company with an empty morning slot put together a comic Shakespeare pastiche, luring audiences in with free coffee and croissants. It's now a Fringe institution, with a new script and cast every year, the constants being inventively witty takes on Shakespeare, and croissants. This year writer Tom Crawshaw employs the device of throwing characters from different plays together as Hal, Hamlet, Kate and Ariel must defeat the combined villainies of Richard III, Iago, Tamyra (from Titus Andronicus) and Macbeth's third witch. Familiar lines are quoted, misquoted and punned upon unmercifully ('Once more onto the beach'), and plots are mashed until Hamlet is in love with the witch, Iago and Tamyra find themselves being tricked like Benedick and Beatrice, and everyone is roped into a bout of Shakespearean rapping. Don't worry if you don't catch all the references or recognise all the quotations – there'll be another along in a few seconds. Funny, inventive, totally silly and blessedly devoid of any redeeming educational value, it's an ideal start to a Fringe day. And did I mention free croissants?  Gerald Berkowitz

Show 6   Summerhall    ***
The Lyric Hammersmith Secret Theatre concept, with the repertoire not announced in advance, seems like a perfect fit for Edinburgh so it is no surprise to see this 50 minute long new piece by Mark Ravenhill playing at Summerhall. Without a title, the play takes a little time to make its mark, not helped by sentences that never reach their conclusions, often only getting three or four words in. Show 6 is a dystopian Sci-Fi drama that features a trio of wasted kids trying to establish their identities. This sounds run of the mill until we and they discover that their lives are not what they seem. Everything changed with a coup that they cannot remember. As a result, the people that they regard as parents are surrogates. The real ones are reputedly in an asylum, so the dissolute youngsters set out to "liberate the deranged" and we follow their unfulfilled and at times chilling journey. The cast of Cara Horgan, Steven Webb and Matti Houghton work well in the round under the direction of Caroline Steinbeis but the promising concept is not followed through to a properly Pinteresque conclusion. Philip Fisher

Siddhartha The Musical   Assembly Rooms     ****
Originally created in a Milan prison, this musical has been wowing audiences in Europe and the US and now’s your chance to see what the fuss is about. No matter that it’s in Italian, after all this is an eminently user-friendly language thanks to the international appeal of opera, Laura Pausini and snappily translated easy-to-see surtitles. Based on the Hermann Hesse novel, set long ago in India, Siddhartha abandons his well-heeled background to wander as an itinerant beggar in the search for enlightenment and the secret of self-fulfilment. Accompanied by his companion Govinda he meets the Buddha, whose answers are not the ones Siddhartha seeks for his own personal destiny. Later he learns the art of love from beautiful courtesan Kalama and becomes a wealthy man before renouncing it all to return to the simplicity of the poverty he once enjoyed. Strong-voiced Giorgio Adamo as Siddhartha and Valentina Spreca as Kamala lead this 23-strong cast who sing and dance their way through a vibrant series of colourful, lush set pieces. Interestingly there's a gradual style change as the numbers progress - what starts off as 'world moods', with Indian tones and pipes, slowly turns to powerful Italian pop-rock, with harmonies and electric guitar chords replacing the lush synth pads. In this Edinburgh version, Isabella Biffi’s creation works on every level and the catchy verse-chorus songs confidently demonstrate how a more popular style works perfectly within a traditional musical show format – even if it does leaves you longing for more torch songs. An instant crowd-pleaser that hits all the right emotional and production buttons, this is also, from a technical point of view, a superlative example of a large touring show designed to play smaller-sized venues with all the oomph of Wembley Arena.  Nick Awde

The Silence of Snow: The Life Of Patrick Hamilton   Laughing Horse@Espionage     ***
Mark Farrelly's portrait of the author of Rope and Hangover Square touches all the bases for such solo shows – biographical narrative, selected quotations, fine performance – and yet never quite manages to make the subject seem worth the bother. A successful popular novelist and playwright, Patrick Hamilton flourished in the 1930s and 1940s and drank himself to death in 1962. Although respected by some fellow writers he never reached the status of being taken seriously as a literary figure, and the few excerpts Farrelly includes suggest a facility with words and moody descriptions but little more. Meanwhile the most interesting biographical titbit is that both his parents and his brother were minor novelists, and Hamilton seems to have fallen into the trade because it was the family business. The rest of his biography – love affairs, complicated marriages, a bad automobile accident and, of course, the drinking – is almost generic, and Farrelly has a hard time making it interesting. Farrelly is more successful in positing a personality for his subject. As directed by Linda Marlowe, he gives Hamilton a smooth and almost smarmy veneer suggesting a Bond villain transported back into a 1940s film noir, an image not inappropriate to one who seems to have been more a complacent man-about-town than a serious artist.  Gerald Berkowitz

Silent Voice   Assembly Roxy    ***
A gang of thieves are on the run after a botched robbery that included some unplanned killings. One is wounded and another commits a gratuitous and particularly sadistic further killing. Convinced there is an informer among them, they turn murderously on each other and we discover that one of them is in fact an undercover cop – and have you spotted the problem yet? Despite minor differences, Aubrey Sekhabi's 1998 drama, here performed by the South African State Theatre, is all-but-identical in plot outline, tone and theme to Quentin Tarantino's 1992 film Reservoir Dogs, and it never escapes that shadow. Setting the play in South Africa doesn't really add much – the thieves are all black and the man killed along the way is an Afrikaner farmer – and despite energetic and impassioned performances by the cast of four, you are not likely to find much more here than deja vu.  Gerald Berkowitz

Sleeping Beauty   Institut francais d'Ecosse     ****
Fairy tales in reality are frightful things, being as they are sugar-coated depictions of the awfulness and danger of everyday life in olden times. In this retelling of the uber-classic story, puppeteer Colette Garrigan brings, Ken Loach-style, that dark undercurrent to the fore yet presents it with the disarming confidence of a Cbeebies presenter. Our fraught princess is therefore a girl from a grimy, harsh northern city. Although clever and curious, she falls into traps that seem almost predetermined – from teenage abortion to hard drugs – and a stony road lies ahead of her before she can keep that appointment with Prince Charming. Garrigan uses all the imagery a kids’ puppet show can muster so evocatively that you have to pinch yourself to be reminded that this isn’t Disneyland. Intriguingly, although all the clues to the plot are visible onstage in every prop and device, Garrigan keeps you guessing right up to the end as to what she is to pick up next and how she’ll use it. Shadowplay crops up at unexpected moments, as do miniature puppets, while a sheet turns into a person and cutlery into faces. Deviser/performer Garrigan is a Liverpudlian who develops work in France, so while she narrates in English, she occasionally delves into evocative bursts of French (always translated), adding to the fractured reality of this dark urban update. The fact that this is clearly an adult show should not exclude it from children 13 plus, since it immerses us in the dreamy visuals of European puppetry along with that harder-edged British eclecticism.  Nick Awde

SmallWar   Traverse      *

In this Great War centenary year, Belgian writer-performer Valentijn Dhaenens has assembled a collage of the words of soldiers, nurses and others through the ages who experienced war first-hand. That's not a particularly unique or original idea – there are at least three other shows similarly inspired and constructed in Edinburgh this year – but Dhaenens' is unique in his choice to dress the readings up in a production that thoroughly undermines their power, poetry and dramatic effectiveness. Wheeling on a dummy representing a horrifically wounded solider, Dhaenens appears in drag as a nurse, who rattles off casualty statistics with the disassociation of one who admits she has become hardened to the horrors of war, and occasionally punctuates the hour singing such ditties as 'Nature Boy', 'Smile' and 'Riders On The Storm' in a clearly untrained voice. Meanwhile, on a large screen behind her several video versions of Dhaenens appear, to speak the thoughts of that wounded soldier and others. The odd choice of giving all the potentially most powerful speeches to the recorded figures rather than the live one must distance the audience from the words and the emotions they convey, crippling their effectiveness. And the fact that Dhaenens' performances, both live and on tape, jump between affectless blandness and broad camp, with little that is attractive, realistic or sympathetic in between, alienates even further. Had a performer been handed great material and told deliberately to make it as ineffectual as possible, he might have come up with these bad choices and weak performances. Dhaenens evidently thinks he is enhancing his raw materials, but he is gilding a lily with tarnish. Gerald Berkowitz

Smarty Pants   Sweet     ****
Abby is about to start her first day at school. She's excited but also a little nervous about making such a big step. Of course her Dad is quick to reassure her, telling her she's a clever girl and she'll love learning all sorts of stuff. But once at school Abby finds that being naturally curious can sometimes get you labelled a ‘smarty pants’ – especially by the biggest girl in the class, Bridget. With the help of her new friend Billy, Abby not only learns to stand up for herself, showing everyone how learning can be fun, but she also works out that everyone is different. Leading this enchanting, empowering children’s musical, deftly directed by JD Henshaw, bubbly Claire Healy perfectly captures inquisitive Abby in a winning performance, while Grant Robert Keelan and Lynne Martin put in fine support as Billy and Bridget, as do Paul Joseph Creegan as Dad, and Michael J Warne as teacher Mr Dewey. The songs, by Dean Friedman – who also wrote the book – range from infectiously bouncy singalongs to powerful lullabies and allow the cast to show off their singing voices. Friedman’s combination of fun with a message opens up this production to a wide range of touring potential, particularly among schools and regional theatres. Nick Awde 

So It Goes   Underbelly      ****
When her father died, Hannah Moss found it difficult to talk about her feelings or him, and so now that he is the subject of her new play, inability to speak becomes a central metaphor. Moss and co-creator David Ralfe act entirely in mime, aided by inter-titles either preprinted or written on the spot. Both wear small whiteboards which they regularly write on and erase, setting scenes and carrying on conversations without a sound. The story they tell is simple and deliberately generic – a daughter's memories of her beloved, sometimes silly, sometimes embarrassing (as when he danced) daddy, who became sick and then very sick and then not there any more. The inherent pathos of the story is balanced by the inventiveness of the presentation and by Moss's cheery smile throughout, reassuring us that the author-actress has survived and recovered from her deepest pain. But, with no director credited, the piece could benefit from some tightening, the forward movement delayed not just by the need to write everything but by a tendency to extend scenes longer than is necessary to produce their effect.  Gerald Berkowitz

Something's In The Living Room   C Cubed      **
With imperceptible slowness a pile of fabric on the floor begins to move, eventually revealing performer Sally E. Dean all but buried in the costume. It takes her ten minutes to stand up and emerge like a chick from a furry egg. Now wearing the massive construction as a full skirt and train, she then crawls around the floor, strikes a few notes on a piano, speaks to an unseen person, crawls some more, mainly backwards, talks to audience members and dances to their replies, is offended by a painting on the wall, rolls around some more and finally escapes entirely from the costume and exits. Publicity material says this all has something to do with how we deceive ourselves in order to survive, but there needs a clearer roadmap in the performance itself to even hint at that or any other interpretation. Too rarely beautiful or evocative enough to be appreciated as an abstract work, Dean's dance/movement/mime piece exists in too closed and opaque a box, its meanings withheld from us by the choreographer/performer.  Gerald Berkowitz

Sonics In Duum   Gilde3d Balloon      ***
Sonics, an Italian acrobatics and dance company, offers an hour-long program of aerial ballet and ground-based acrobatics tied together by a loose and not wholly coherent plot involving a subterranean race led by a troll-like creature to leap up to the surface world. Performers hang, swing or float on ropes, strong men lift supple women, and none of it seems to have much to do with the troll's narration. The stress throughout appears to be less on exciting applause-demanding tricks than on beauty of line and movement, and to that end all the turns are performed slowly. There is no question that some of the effects are as beautiful as they are athletically impressive. But British audiences are more accustomed to seeing such acts as five-minute specialities in variety shows or background action in Las Vegas-type spectacles, and an hour of a limited repertoire of acrobatics may lose its effectiveness before the end. Certainly the grand climax, with the whole cast hanging from a circular trapeze, is no more impressive than some of the things that have gone before, and audiences are more likely to remember one or two specific moments than the whole.   Gerald Berkowitz

Spine   Underbelly      *****

Clara Brennan's monologue was first seen as a short sketch in 2013, and has been fleshed out to an hour with no loss of intensity or dramatic power. Spoken by a street-smart and somewhat street-wounded teenage girl, it tells of an unlikely encounter with an older woman who surprisingly proves to be exactly the mentor the girl needs. Having progressed from general teenage moping about to violence and petty crime, the girl is thrown out of her home and seeks a place to stay. The dotty old lady she rents a room from turns out to be an old-style radical, tough-minded and anti-establishment enough to make the girl look bourgeois. She gets her reading and thinking and feeling, channelling the potential she sees in the girl toward a maturity the kid would not have found on her own. Rosie Wyatt captures all the explosive energy of a teen who wants more from life without even realising she does, convinces us from the start that there really is something special in this girl, and then carries us through what are admittedly some sentimental patches in the script to her triumphant discovery of her self. And if director Bethany Pitts sometimes has her shouting and bouncing off the walls in scenes that logically would be quieter, the slight loss in realism is more than balanced by the completely believable depiction of raw-nerved and chaotic adolescent energy and the sustained power of one of the finest performances in Edinburgh.  Gerald Berkowitz

Spoiling   Traverse    ***
Not much more – or much longer – than an extended revue sketch, John McCann's fifty-minute play addresses a serious topic through exuberant humour. After a successful Scottish independence referendum a populist Scottish minister is to address the first 'What do we do now?' talks between Holyrood and Westminster. But she's a bit of a loose cannon, and a civil service minder has been sent to make sure she sticks to a harmless script and rocks no boats. Will she be stifled or give in to the temptation to thumb her nose at what's left of the United Kingdom? Can the minder control her or will she discover that he's from Northern Ireland and secretly envious of the Scots, and win him over? And what will she say at the conference? John McCann's comic answers are unlikely but not literally intended. They are an assertion of true Scottish independence, a celebration of liberty and refusal to apologise for it or be humble in facing the world. As directed by Orla O'Loughlin, Gabriel Quigley and Richard Clements have not at an early performance found all the comic rhythms, but that will quickly improve. It is a slight play, but one that will delight Scots while serving notice to the rest of the world that an independent Scotland is not going to sneak quietly onto the world stage.  Gerald Berkowitz

Swimming   Pleasance Dome    ***
A typical – almost archetypal – Fringe play, Jane Upton's modest little drama shows three young people at the cusp of having to make some choices in life, and opting to delay them just a little bit longer. Working at a seaside diner on the Isle of Wight, the lad is a local who knows that he's fated to stay here forever while the two girls are just making some money between university terms. The pretty girl plays at being a slut while resisting the realisation that she can't keep that game up forever; the less pretty girl hides her insecurities behind a gruff front; and the boy swings between aggression and suicidal despair. Not much happens or changes in the course of the summer, except that a couple of small opportunities for change are missed and everyone knows that they can't keep floating along much longer. Neither the playwright nor the attractive performers – Jack Bence, Jessica Madsen and Grace Watts – are able to develop the characters very much beyond stereotypes, but there is a core of truth in what the play shows us that is likely to linger in your thoughts afterwards. Gerald Berkowitz

Symphony   Assembly    ****
The new writing company nabokov has taken three short playlets, or sketches for plays, by Tom Wells, Nick Payne and Ella Hickson, added music and mashed the whole thing together in an hour of light comedy and gently rocking songs. It's nothing major – at fifteen minutes or so each the scripts can't help just skimming the surface of their subjects – but a pleasant afternoon's entertainment. The audience first encounters the cast
- Katie Elin-Salt, Jack Brown, Iddon Jones and Liam Gerrard – as musicians playing us into the theatre. In the course of the hour one or another will step forward to become either the main narrator-character or supporting cast in the stories, while the multi-talented others switch instruments to cover the vacancies. Tom Wells's opener watches a nerdy kid try to find a back door way to meet the requirements for a GSCE in PE by joining the girls' netball team. Nick Payne and Ella Hickson each take the rom-com route, Payne showing a shy guy admiring a girl on the bus and then making a move that goes sadly wrong, while Hickson's couple meet cute, get together, fall apart, get back together again and then just can't keep the yo-yoing going. All three scripts are punctuated and accompanied by pleasant songs and mood music by Ed Gaughan. The effect is a bit like a marathon couch potato evening of three rom-com DVDs all squeezed into an hour, which in this case is quite an enjoyable experience.  Gerald Berkowitz

This Is Living   Bedlam    ****
Alice has just died. But for some strange reason she has not quite passed over to the other side yet. Grieving husband Michael turns up to visit her deathspot and an interesting conversation, to say the least, strikes up between the couple. We soon realise that this is a family riven asunder by tragedy, but rather than dwell on cheap melancholy, we witness instead two loving individuals whose determination to grow with each other stretches beyond the grave. Although the story told here of their romance is slight, it keeps you guessing all the way, flipping from past to present in mid-sentence, slowly piecing itself together as the fragments of time join up. As Alice and Michael, Tamsin Topolski and Andrew Gourlay alternate between their younger and older selves without once breaking the complex beat. Topolski convinces as she passes through the various stages of flighty teenager becoming responsible mother, while Gourlay is the picture of restraint as the rock in their relationship who now finds himself panicking. Director Liam Borrett runs with his tight script and keeps the cast on their technical toes in this highly demanding piece without losing the emotional stakes or the constant undercurrent of humour. Isabella Van Braeckel’s design is remarkable in that the states of now and then are tangibly evoked with the simplest of lighting and sound, transforming the couple visually and aurally – warm and lively in the past, cold and eerie in the present.  Nick Awde

300 To One   Banshee Labyrinth   ***
Writer-performer Matt Panesh works some nice variations on the One-Man-Insert-Name-Of-Film-Here genre by placing his solo version of the 2006 sword-and-sandal epic 300 in a context meant to give it extra depth and emotional resonances. If he doesn't quite pull that part off, it's still a lot of fun. Panesh plays a teenage boy facing a homework assignment on World War One poets that makes no sense to him because war is all about manly excitement, not poetry. The avuncular ghosts of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon ('Sassoon the poet, not the hairdresser' he insists, though he seems unable to avoid gay double-entendres) aren't able to convince him otherwise, so they amiably allow him to make his case by acting out the Spartans-v-Persians movie. Panesh has a lot of fun with this, playing all the manly men and sexy women as a boy would see them and recruiting the audience to supply theme music and sound effects. And then, when the stage is littered with imaginary bodies, the poets can step in and make their case for the ugly horror of war. Panesh is an able and personable performer with an instant rapport with the audience – he has appeared for several years as Monkey Poet with a programme of poetry, politics and scabrous jokes – and this move more fully into theatre is a logical and positive step. He's let down only by his ambition, as the satire and broad physical humour of the movie re-enactment and the seriousness of the war poets sit uneasily together and never quite blend and resonate as he would wish.  Gerald Berkowitz

Thrill Me   C Chambers Street    ****
Book and song writer Stephen Dolginoff strikes and maintains the right dark and subdued melodic tone throughout this musical about two notorious 'just for the fun of it' murderers of the 1920s, finding unobtrusive ways to fit the vocabulary of obsession and murder into rhythm and rhyme, and only very rarely allowing the sense of prose being shoehorned into a song. His reading of the Leopold-Loeb case is that despite their talk of supermen both young men were driven by insecurity and need. In love with his classmate, Leopold did anything that was demanded in return for grudgingly bestowed intimacies while Loeb's thrill-seeking was a cover for his fear that he might not be as unique and superior as he wanted to think. In following the pair from early petty crimes through the murder of a randomly chosen schoolboy and beyond, the musical convincingly traces the power game, with a couple of surprising twists. Danny Colligan as Leopold carries much of the weight as narrator while touchingly capturing the pathos of a slave to love, while Jo Parsons makes Loeb in his aloofness less easy to know until his confidence begins to crack. Directed sensitively by Guy Retallack, the two hold the largely empty stage with authority and hold audience interest and sympathy throughout.   Gerald Berkowitz

The Time Of Our Lies - The Life And Times Of Howard Zinn   Gilded Balloon    ***
Howard Zinn was an American whose experience of flying carpet bombing missions in World War II inspired a lifetime of anti-war and civil rights activism. He also became a major chronicler of that unique journey as made by the ordinary citizens of his nation. Bianca Bagatourian’s ambitious biography narrates his life and evolving thoughts via monologue, song and movement, set against projected images and words that frame the action as a visual commentary. Various set pieces combine to create that bigger picture of how the impersonality of politicians allows mass destruction to grow unchecked – such as dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and napalming a French town filled with civilians – and the similar effect in peacetime on curtailing civic liberties and aspirations.  However, for all this promising material, it’s a mixed bag. While the opening sung piece and the later Never Again sequence are stunning – achingly beautiful yet dark examples of physical theatre – little else delivers. The pieces become disjointed narrative-wise, further fractured by a lack of movement to link them. Additionally, director Josh Chambers has not bothered with projection or conciseness of movement, the lack of which dogs this hardworking five-strong ensemble throughout. There is a lot of promising material here and, with a return to the drawing board plus a firm set of external eyes, this could well become the ironic, iconic American elegy it set out to be.  Nick Awde

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Title And Deed   Assembly Hall    *****
Will Eno's monologue is spoken by a man who is admittedly a stranger here, though he would appear to be a stranger anywhere. Though he speaks of the customs and manners of the place he comes from, he gives the sense of having no real home of the sort implied by the title and no other way of defining himself. He spends most of his hour just trying to introduce himself when he doesn't seem quite sure who he is, trying to describe himself when he's not all that certain he's there. Eno's masterly phrasemaking is evident in lines like 'the hope that I might, with a change of scenery, change' and 'one foot in the grave and the other in my mouth'. Frequently funny, just as often touching, it captures the identitylessness of one who can start an anecdote and stop himself with 'I once was . . . – no, I probably never was'. As directed by Judy Hegarty Lovett, Conor Lovett gives a performance of absolute mastery, fully fleshing out the man who isn't there, playing the script's subtle shifts in tone like a musician and, while giving the appearance of random rambling, controlling the pace and rhythm throughout.  Gerald Berkowitz

The Tommy Cooper Show    Spotlites@The Merchants' Hall    ***
This potted retelling of Tommy Cooper's career puts his stage show in the spotlight complete with all the classic routines, gags and one-liners, offering up a well-rounded, entertaining portrait of the show business phenomenon that he worked so hard to become. A showcase for Daniel Taylor’s inspired characterisation, things are lifted out of tribute act territory via songs and dramatised historical interludes that frame key moments in Cooper’s life. To a delighted audience – which on the night included everyone from senior citizens to a pair of engrossed eight-year-olds (impressive for a show that ends at midnight!) – Taylor gives a masterclass of the bizarre world of Cooper’s unique take on comedy and magic.  The routines segue into scenes featuring his wife Gwen (Sharon Byatt) and agent Miff Ferrie (Warwick Evans), the long-serving – and suffering – mainstays of his career. Taylor has the voice and the mannerisms down pat, and he delivers the patter and the routines convincingly. What’s missing however is Cooper's physicality, a presence that gave him stillness and action in equal measure (and the lack of eyebrows!). Without that dynamic there isn't that crucial timing to keep the pace going or to deliver the punchlines – which in Cooper’s case were so often a fusion of verbal and physical, utterly clown-like. Additionally the personal life interludes are too thrown in to take Cooper on a journey. Find that presence, and modify and integrate the dramatic segments to more fully give the stage business a context, then this will deserve to tour its way into the top circuit.  Nick Awde

Trainspotting   Hill Street    ****
Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting is 20 years old and it hasn’t dated a day if this no-holds-barred adaption from In Your Face Theatre is anything to go by. Here the audience are on their feet, moving from space to space across a wide hall, where screens slide open to reveal bedrooms, kitchens and trains. Often the action simply takes place in and around the audience. In this Edinburgh netherworld, Renton, Sick Boy, Begbie and Co wander the disjointed, fractured landscape of their picaresque for our times, where logic and time are dictated by the ebb and flow of heroin hits, where the limits between violence and pleasure blur, and where any escape bid is doomed. And yes there is the toilet scene in its entirety. Additionally, in a bold move, subtle updated references abound to make things as relevant now as they were then. Headed by a compelling Gavin Ross as Renton, this large cast work hard and generously, playing things for real (and in-yer-face) but skilfully resisting the temptation to provoke and thus alienate the audience. Hence they ensure that it is the graveyard humour in Welsh’s masterpiece that shocks most of all. Things are a little rough around the edges, the enunciation needs sorting, and the movement troupe needs more development, but to be honest director/adaptor Christopher Rybak works wonders in not only recreating a whole world from a minimal budget but also manoeuvring his performers around the complex of spaces and negotiating the crowd in between. The four stars are also for the sheer audacity of it all, for creating a production that will get the younger generations in while showing the older generations what young theatre is all about, for performing this punishing 75 minutes three times a day, and, especially, for the epic shitty sheet scene.  Nick Awde

Travesti   Pleasance Dome    ****
Verbatim interviews with young women on the experience of being young women, touching on everything from makeup to dating to encounters with sexism to feeling safe on the street at night, are given fresh resonances through the inspired device of having them spoken by young men. The cast of six act totally masculine throughout, with no hint of effeminacy or camp – indeed, they might well be the guys whose behaviour in clubs and the workplace they find themselves voicing complaints about. But that double vision makes the words come alive in a fresh way. The very masculine man complaining that the world expects him to shave his legs and underarms and even his crotch gets a hearing that a rebellious woman does not, and listening to a strong six-footer admit that he's uncomfortable riding a night bus makes us re-evaluate a fear we might otherwise dismiss. You can't hear one of these men talk about how he has to assume he's going to be anonymously groped every time he goes to a club without wondering whether this very guy has ever been one of the gropers. There are lighter sides as well, as the guys confess to enjoying the effect of makeup or high heels or to letting people help them with their luggage. The point is that there is nothing here that we haven't heard before, but both men and women in the audience will hear it in a new way that is both enlightening and entertaining.  Gerald Berkowitz

The Trial of Jane Fonda   Assembly Rooms    ***
Let's begin with a bit of what is to many ancient history: in the early 1970s American actress Jane Fonda became involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement, and her high profile made her a poster girl for all those who resented the protesters and considered her a traitor. In 1988 she met with a small group of antagonistic veterans to present her side of the story. Terry Jastrow's play imagines that meeting. Now, as one who was around at the time and remembers the excesses of rhetoric on both sides, I should say that I was and am generally sympathetic to Fonda's position. So is Jastrow, but his play is so blatantly skewed toward her that it does not make as strong a case as he wants. The half-dozen veterans are presented as near-cartoons of belligerence and prejudice, while Jane is calm and reason personified. After some initial nastiness toward her, and with occasional interruptions, she is allowed to make her case, while newsreel projections support every point she makes, and while she doesn't win all the guys over, she does defuse most of their anger. That she, and the anti-war movement in general, made some mistakes and overstated their arguments (like by labelling all US soldiers murderers) in ways that inevitably generated resentment and antagonism is acknowledged only in passing (as is the fact that even the FBI decided that Fonda was an irrelevant sideshow not worth investigating). As far as Jastrow is concerned, Jane good, everyone else bad. This is reflected in the production, as directed by Jastrow. Inevitably there's one guy in a wheelchair, a grizzled old guy, a twisted and bitter one, a more reasonable one (the only one not still in fatigues) and the like, each given only one note to play. Anne Archer never imitates Jane or any other human being – she is there to get the pro-Jane argument spoken and to cue the newsreel footage, and is throughout just an actress reciting memorised lines and standing, moving and sitting when directed. The play does have some documentary value, particularly for those under fifty, and gets one star for that. But it is not successful as drama.  Gerald Berkowitz

Unfaithful   Traverse    ****
On whim, a young woman chats up an older man in a bar and offers him sex. In revenge, the man's wife hires a male escort who is, of course, the young woman's boyfriend. Owen McCafferty's play, which moves smoothly between dark drama and warm comedy, is ultimately not about sex at all, but about what was missing in both relationships and what sorts of deep commitments even the most loving couples have difficulty making. That the answers lie in communication, remembering what drew you together to begin with, and saying 'I love you' may be a bit of a disappointment to those hoping for new and original solutions to life's problems, but perhaps the answers really are that easy. In a polished production by Rachel O'Riordan and design by Gary McCann, Benny Young and Cara Kelly give fully rounded, sympathetic and attractively underplayed performances as the older couple, well supported by Owen Whitelaw and Amiera Darwish as the younger pair. Gerald Berkowitz

Voca People   Pleasance    ****
If you haven’t yet met the Voca People then know that they dress in white from head to toe, brandish bright red lips, speak English like Latka out of Taxi, and, tonight at the packed Grand, they need us Earthlings to help them fly their crashlanded space craft back to their home planet, Voca. Cue a mayhem-filled 70 minutes of a cappella fun as the Voca People attempt to learn Earth music and read the minds of assorted audience members. Visual humour abounds with aural slapstick in between the songs because not only does this eight-strong group sing multi-layered standards ranging from hip-hop to opera but they also have an enviable ability to create a wealth of sound FX and beatbox gimmickry with their voices. There is now an increasingly established canon of standards for male-female a cappella groups, and so we also get the likes of Poker Face and Bohemian Rhapsody. Crowd favourites included the opera and ‘instrumental’ movie theme segues. Pleasingly there is a quirk in every arrangement that adds to the stranded aliens story, raising this from concert to a comic piece of theatre. However, not all the movement is as tight as it should be, and the same is true of the arrangements. The latter case is not helped by the casting of the three female singers. Playing it as individual lead vocalists, their voices clash dissonantly when at the fore, and are swallowed up when backing the more balanced male voices. If they won’t modify as ensemble singers when needed, then surely the desk EQ can sort it? No matter – the girls pulled up three unsuspecting guys onstage and crooned to them, getting the biggest clap of the night from a delighted crowd. Add to that impressive lighting throughout and the standing ovation on the night, and you know that Voca People know their audience and give their all. Oh, and a star curtain to die for!  Nick Awde

Beth Vyse   Pleasance    ****
Working-class presenter Olive Hands is suddenly facing the loss of her show on ITV9 forever and it’s her last chance to prove she’s a contender. And now it’s all gone horribly wrong, as her coachload of celebrity guests is held up after a horse has rammed it – improbable maybe, inconvenient certainly. Panic ensues, but then, after a Pythonesque revelation from a Tellytubby sun that happens to be Les Dawson, Olive rallies and retrenches. What follows is an hour of gloriously inspired mayhem as Olive cobbles together the show that should have been, roping in bewigged, bewildered yet devotedly willing volunteers from the audience to stand in for the guests. There’s a dark edge to the comedy as Olive also seizes the opportunity to unleash her personal demons despite the frantic efforts of longsuffering and frockbearing offspring Jazz to head her off. This is more than character-based comedy, it’s total theatre where Olive Hands is so multi-levelled that even when Vyse breaks out of character to corpse – quite frequently given the inventiveness of her audience stand-ins – it simply reinforces Olive. Similarly Vyse’s ability to launch out into the unknown and to always hit her mark – be it comedy or pathos – impresses as she weaves order out of chaos. As sideman Jazz Hands, Ali Brice is immensely generous, while Gareth Morinan and Joel Bee make cameos on the constant projection at the back – a show in itself. Director Luke Chaproniere gets huge credit for channeling all the strands – performers, audience, props, multimedia – ensuring that things never skip a beat. If anyone’s looking for a remedy for TV’s lacklustre programming, Olive has proved she’s ready for her own special.  Nick Awde 

We Have Fallen   Underbelly    ***
When airplanes suddenly start falling from the sky, a female black box analyst comes to the startling conclusion that the laws of physics are shifting. Her attempt to get to the right people with this data analysis brings her to a French farmhouse where she meets a Greenham Common alumna and veteran protester, and that woman's estranged City high-flyer son. The airplanes turn out to be something of a McGuffin designed just to get these three people in the same room, because playwright Jacqui Honess-Martin is really interested in how they each respond to a crisis and how they bounce off each other. The first half of the play follows them on their separate journeys to this spot, and the remainder lets them interact and then move forward. Although the scientist is a feminist proud of having made it in a male business she could waver in her confidence that she's right without the model of the older woman before her, while that woman is reinvigorated by the opportunity to do more than just protest and the shallow, hedonistic and sexist man has to grow up very quickly. Under the playwright's direction Lydia Larson, Barbara Wilshere and Oliver J. Hembrough each take their characters on convincing and moving external and internal journeys of self-discovery.  Gerald Berkowitz

What Do You Mean   Spotlites@The Merchants' Hall    ***
Two foolproof comic devices are mashed together in Bruce A! Kraemer's comedy, and only the fact that the result is stretched a little too thin keeps it from full success. The first element is a chaotic backstage farce in the Noises Off mode, this time with a wannabe playwright who has never actually written a play still managing (because his mother is putting up the money) to collect a producer, director, designer and actors, even though he has to be taught just what a producer, director, designer and actors actually do. The second is the magical device by which the play he's writing is this one, so he can change the reality we're seeing just by deleting or typing in things at his laptop. The combination is a fast-moving gag-filled romp full of type characters who are right at home in its spoof reality – the gruff producer, the I'm-an-artist designer, the sexy intern who's not quite as dumb as she looks, and so on. The problem is that this is really a revue sketch, and all director Joan Kane's efforts really can't sustain the thin joke for an hour, so you begin to notice that the acting is uneven, the characters are repeating themselves and you have a bus to catch.  Gerald Berkowitz

Where The World Is Going, That's Where We Are Going   Summerhall  ****
Two writers. She is a compulsive self-editor, he hates committing to paper. She opts for decisive action, he avoids conflict. Not much writing or decision-making seems to be done by this engaging yet hapless pair of scribes, but they do a lot of talking about it in this wickedly laidback satire. Or should that be romantic comedy? For what is perfectly clear is that the more they talk about literature the less they talk about what they should be taking about which is are they or are they not going to talk about the budding relationship that’s brewing in between them. And so she pertly simmers while he desperately concentrates on the audience as they plunge into a lecture on the complex philosophical consequences of storytelling according to French Enlightenment writer Denis Diderot. They need to drift before they can fix on things. Lost you already? Never mind, for the conversation that ensues is filled with so many MacGuffins and red herrings, that the couple also find themselves lost in a quirky, endearing, infuriating duet - a duel even – as their attempt to recreate a story for the audience according to Diderot’s tenets becomes a war of wills. Jeroen Van der Ven and Ans Van den Eede go for a virtuoso masterclass of body language, each genrously focused on the other with every unconscious tic, gesture, body shift and inflection revealing the subtext of their characters’ real thoughts that lie under the words. Theirs is a fearless performance for a fearless script, courtesy of Ans and Louise Van den Eede with Greg Timmermans (in a superb translation by Wannes Gyselinck), which creates an innovative simultaneous double-dialogue that you both see and hear, and which is both touching and comic – and lingers long after.  Nick Awde

A World Beyond Man   Sweet on the Grassmarket    **
The man-against-the-elements solo show has a formula that this version written by Stephanie Dale and performed by Cassian Wheeler follows adequately without rising above it. In 1912 a poorly equipped and manned Russian ship set out into the Arctic in search of new fishing and hunting grounds, and became ice-locked. After almost two years of waiting for a thaw, a group led by navigator Valarian Albanov set out across the ice with home-made sledges and kayaks in hope of reaching settlements hundreds of miles away and sending back a rescue party. The bulk of the monologue follows the trekkers as some give up, some die and only two, including Albanov, make it to safety. (The ship was never rescued.) Dressed and bearded as a veteran sailor, Cassian Wheeler presents Albanov's story from his diaries, puttering about a cluttered set that suggests the remains of a base camp, and using found objects as visual aids. Some blocks of wood stand in for crew members as he addresses them, some bedsheets for ice or sails. Inevitably the story has strong emotional power, but almost all comes from the story itself, Wheeler's low key delivery adding little, and this remains a very small show best suited for small venues and undemanding audiences.  Gerald Berkowitz

Years To The Day   Pleasance    *****
There’s an American tradition of snappy two-handers where turbo-charged actors trade zippy Mamet one-liners and insults, and at some point or other reveal a poignant flaw lurking under the hi-octane bravado. Oh, an obscure (for the rest of us) aspect of US politics will also get a significant mention. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Except this one. Via the bitter-sweet tale of fortysomething best mates meeting up after an absence marked by four years of emails and texts, writer Allan Barton picks up the genre and turns it inside out to reveal an extraordinary heart beating under the satire. While outwardly bemoaning how modern society expresses itself through social media, ‘never assume’ is the harsh lesson of the day for our outwardly confident protagonists as this moment of personal contact raises questions they would rather not answer. Through twists and turns the friends parry and thrust through the quagmires of life, covering such breathtaking ground for a one-acter that you are warned to hang on to every seemingly throwaway put-down or quip since they all ultimately count as it becomes apparent there is a plot beating under all the flash talk. Michael Yavnieli and Jeff Lebeau take the perfect pairing of Barton’s script and Joel Polis’ direction and own the show, slaloming their way through a rollercoaster of emotions, the effect all more magic because they are seated throughout. As the gruff rapier-wit Dan, Yavnieli creates a hyper-realistic grouch who grows to be endearingly human even as he shocks us, getting laughs where we least expect them, while, in a technically astounding portrayal, LeBeau maintains a veneer of sensitivity against the other’s onslaughts as he unleashes simmering physicality under the dialogue to gradually expose his own internal erosion. Aside from being a Swift-like dissection on the mores of modern society, Years to the Day also makes a strangely elegant plea for the weird choices we have to make in order to negotiate the parts of life we cannot change.  Nick Awde

Your Fragrant Phantom   C Cubed    ***
The lasting fascination of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, golden couple of the 1920s whose shooting star burned out in alcohol and fading talent for him and mental illness for her, is presented in this play by Jenna May Hobbs that captures much of the story but finds its core elusive. The spirits of the pair remember and relive their adventure, from the intense passion of their first love through the high life of Scott's success to the downhill slide, which Hobbs dates largely from Zelda's inability to love her daughter and her abortion of a second child. This led to Scott freezing her out, her ever more desperate attempts to win him back or create an independent life for herself, and her madness. Katherine Hardman and Craig Hamilton capture the excitement and joy of the couple's good times and their deep separate unhappiness when things go sour. But the why and the how elude both playwright and performers, the cold selfishness in Scott that kept him from empathising with her pain and made it easier for him just to break with her, and the madness (probably no more than bipolar swings) that made her such a burden to live with.  Gerald Berkowitz

Zelda - The Last Flapper   Hill Street    **
William Luce's 1984 portrait of Zelda Fitzgerald finds her in a mental hospital shortly before her death in 1948, a prematurely old woman ravaged by bitterness and mental illness. Despite the title and a couple of brief flashbacks, there is nothing of the younger Zelda in the portrait, no hint of the qualities that attracted Scott Fitzgerald and made the golden couple embodiments of the glamorous high life of the 1920s. Romanian actress Ioana Pavelescu performs William Luce's text in her own language, awkwardly retranslated back into English in surtitles, and her performance, though broad and operatic in its passions, also gives no hint that this woman ever was young, beautiful, high-spirited or talented, as she plays the younger woman of the flashbacks exactly like the older. Her Zelda is clearly unbalanced from the start, so much so that you are startled that she has access to knitting needles and a sharp knife, and the portrait remains static and undeveloped from that premise. All the things one comes to a play about Zelda Fitzgerald for – a glimpse of the golden girl, an evaluation of her talent, an insight into the connection (if any) between her fabled vivacity and her illness, even some gossip about Scott – are missing here, with playwright, director Liana Ceterchi and the actress giving us what might as well be an anonymous and generic old madwoman – Zelda was 47 – in their place.  Gerald Berkowitz

The Zulu   Assembly Hall    ****
Drawing on his great-grandmother's tales and the oral tradition behind them, Mbongeni Ngema presents the epic story of the Zulu nation, from its near-mythic beginnings to the 1879 defeat of the British. It is indeed an epic, comparable to the Iliad or any other mythic national history, beginning with an outcast boy who becomes a great warrior and unites competing tribes into a nation, and continuing through tales of triumphs, betrayals, massacres, assassinations, rebuilding and then, in the Nineteenth Century, near-destruction by the Afrikaners which led ironically to the British re-arming the Zulu army that would then turn against them. With support and musical punctuation by Matshitshi Ngema, Mbongeni Ngema tells the story in a mighty rush of words without clear division into sections of the narrative or differentiation between large and small events, mentioning scores of historic and mythic figures as if they were familiar names – which they might well be for an African audience – so that his account is frequently too much and too fast for British ears to absorb, but there is no question of the stature and importance of the tale he tells.  Gerald Berkowitz

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