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The Theatreguide.London Reviews

EDINBURGH FESTIVAL AND FRINGE 2017

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. 

For the first time in decades we will not be sending a full team to Edinburgh in 2017. But many companies play London previews or return with shows from previous years, and we reprint our reviews of some of them here as a preview sampling of what will be on offer. 

Serendipity is one of the delights of the Festival, and the best show you see may well be one that just happens to be starting as you pass the venue. In that spirit we list all our reviews together, so you can browse and perhaps discover something beyond what you were looking for.


Austen's Women    Assembly Roxy     ****  
What could we have in common with Jane Austen's characters, you might ask, when those girls married at 17 and guys were considered 'old men' at 'two and thirty' years old? Give this show a go and not only will you get plenty of answers to the question, but might even run home to blow the dust off one of the novels again. Rebecca Vaughan's loving homage to Austen's words and characters includes fourteen short sketches of some of Austen's famous ladies such as Lizzy Bennett, Marianne Dashwood and Emma Woodhouse, but also some lesser known ones, such as Diana Parker from Sanditon and Miss Elizabeth Watson from The Watsons. Petulant, prudent, silly or sophisticated, these wives, daughters, young lovers and sisters will have all of our own strengths and weaknesses, and could still teach us a thing or two about how to get on in life. Vaughan's one woman show has hints of Sex and the City as well as Catherine Tate in it - showing us the way in which Austen may well have laid the foundations of observational comedy too. Under Guy Masterson's direction, the piece is tightly corseted but frilly, flowing and flamboyant in all the right places. Duska Radosavljevic

Austentatious   Underbelly George Square   ***
A Fringe perennial, this improvisation on themes from Jane Austen is a proven crowd-pleaser. Though by its very nature an improv show is likely to be uneven, the company know their raw material and have played around with it long enough to be able to deliver. Things begin in the ticket queue, as audience members are asked to suggest titles for lost Jane Austen novels, and one is drawn out of a hat to be the basis for today's hour. I forget the exact title on this occasion, but it wound up having something to do with a dealer in addictive buns, his virtuous daughter forced into the bun trade, and a benevolent noblewoman willing to save her from that fate worse than death. It didn't have a whole lot to do with Jane Austen, but a bunch of attractive performers in Regency costume entertainingly improvised their way into corners and then generally found their way out again. I suspect that there was a certain amount of recycling of old gags and characterisations, but the jokes are good, and the company's rapport with the audience is strong enough that the stumbles and what-do-I-say-now moments are as much fun as the bits of inspired invention. You don't really have to know your pride from your prejudice to enjoy this light and delightful show. Gerald Berkowitz
Big Bite-Size Lunch Hour   Pleasance Dome   ****
It has been ten years since this company first assembled a program of very short plays and brought them to Edinburgh as the Big Bite-Size Breakfast, and to celebrate the anniversary they have added this lunchtime show of Greatest Hits, five complete and self-contained little plays out of their repertoire. Inevitably, some of them have the feel of slightly extended revue sketches, like Philip Linsdell's 'Quiet Table For Four', in which a nervous couple on a blind date are tormented by another pair of actors playing the inner voices out to destroy their confidence. 'Big Fish, Little Fish' by Joel Jones does actually go on a little too long, stretching its single joke of a film noir private eye parody too thin; and probably the weakest of the pieces, Lucy Kaufman's 'Vintage', about a couple who choose to live as if it was 1942, doesn't have much of a joke to begin with. But Joel Jones's 'Answer Man', about a woman encountering the fount of all knowledge and wisdom and not really knowing what to ask, is clever, funny and thought-provoking; and C J Johnson's 'Boris The Rottweiler' achieves surprising depth and emotional resonance as a dog reasons out his behaviour, good and bad, in terms of a very human-sounding sense of honour.  Gerald Berkowitz
Bright Colours Only   Assembly Rooms  *****
Pauline Goldsmith's meditation on death, dying and bereavement looks at it all with a tenderly amused eye, domesticating the subject without disrespecting it, and paradoxically creating one of the happiest and most emotionally satisfying hours on the fringe. Goldsmith begins in the persona of a frighteningly perky undertaker, welcoming us into her parlour and proudly displaying the tacky but oh-so-tasteful-looking accoutrements on offer, such as the gold-effect plastic handles which, she warns us, should not actually be used to lift the coffin. She follows with a realistic and benevolent mix of warts-and-all memories of the departed - a spinster aunt, a grumpy grandmother - and the incongruous behaviour of the living - watching television at a wake, or babbling hysterically. Projections of computer-generated animations, particularly effective in their simplicity, accompany key sequences. Goldsmith's performance in this self-written and self-directed piece is beautifully controlled, moving seamlessly from one persona to another and from the gently comic to the touchingly evocative, such as the catalogue of a child's first experiences of death or the departed's realisation of the life not yet lived. And the piece ends with a fourth-wall-breaking coup de theatre that is as unexpectedly moving as it is audacious. Gerald Berkowitz

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Every Brilliant Thing   Summerhall   *****  
When his mother suffers from depression a small boy tries to cheer her up with a list of reasons to be happy – popcorn, balloons, the colour yellow and the like. It tragically doesn't help mother, but as the boy grows up he occasionally adds to the list – ice cream, kung fu movies, pretty girls – until it numbers in the thousands, and it does help him through his own bouts with depression. Performer Jonny Donahoe tells this story written by Duncan Macmillan with infectious enthusiasm, and since his narration involves citing a lot of entries from his list, the theatre fills with images of happiness. In fact, Donahoe begins the show by handing printed slips of paper out to many in the audience, so that when he calls out various numbers voices from all over the house ring out with brilliant things. Donahoe also casts audience members in small roles, including his father, a school counsellor and the girl of his dreams, encourages them to ad lib little scenes with him and then smoothly incorporates their contributions into his script. People have been known to come out of this show floating on little pink clouds of joy, but even if it doesn't affect you quite that strongly, you can enjoy watching a master performer take hold of an audience, lift them up and not let them down. 
Gerald Berkowitz

Dean Friedman   Sweet Grassmarket      ****  
The New York singer-songwriter who gave us silky hits like Lucky Stars and Ariel in the otherwise mad, bad 70s and championed today by our very own Gaby Roslin and Jonathan Ross, Dean Friedman has never really gone away - he's just been busy producing a string of albums over the years of precision-crafted songs in his own inimitable style. His first chart smashes aside, every song in this Edinburgh show is a classic in its own right - intimate, epic, satirical or just plain loving, there's a song for everyone. He'll have you wiping away tears of laughter to the cheerful insanity of Sado-Masochism, touch you with a ballad about a loved one's death, and arouse delicious disgust with his homage to self-pleasurement, Nookie In The Mail. Shopping Bag Ladies covers more sober territory - a winsome observation of life on the streets - as does McDonald's Girl, in the sense that this love letter to the burger girl behind the counter got Dean banned by the BBC (putting him up there with the Sex Pistols!). Dean refuses to be classified (he also does a kid's show at the same venue) but under the deceptively catchy melodies lies one of the industry's most underrated lyricists. If only for the audience duet on Lucky Stars, you won't see a better show. Nick Awde
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Gratiano   Assembly Hall      **
A reminder: in The Merchant Of Venice Gratiano is the hero's friend who accompanies him on his courting trip and winds up marrying Portia's maid. Writer-performer Ross Ericson transports the story into the Twentieth Century, with all Shakespeare's Christian characters first Mussolini Blackshirts and then Mafia thugs. Ericson's Gratiano retells the story with a combination of a minor character's envy of the star and a low-level hoodlum's resentment at never having risen in the criminal hierarchy. It's a clever conceit but ultimately an empty one. The Shakespearean connection tells us very little about either the Fascists or the Mafia, and the twentieth-century setting tells us very little about Shakespeare – the one small exception being the suggestion of what would probably have happened to Shylock under the Fascists. The fictional premise for this retelling is that Bassanio the modern criminal has been killed and Gratiano is going through the list of people, from Antonio through Portia and even himself, who might have had motives, but that new plot line really goes nowhere. On a bare stage, with only a plain chair to occasionally sit on, Ericson uses his imposing physical presence and persuasive acting talent to create the modern characterization and keep the story alive, but the essential thinness of the concept ultimately limits him. Gerald Berkowitz

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons   Summerhall   ****
Sam Steiner's two-hander, performed here by Beth Holmes and Euan Kitson, takes a fresh look at the potentially over-familiar subject of communication and makes it fresh and real. A young couple go through the predictable communication problems, discovering that words mean different things to each of them or that one is more inclined to talk through things than the other. And then Steiner throws a spanner in the works by imagining the government imposing a new anti-chatter law limiting everyone to 140 words a day. (Why, and how it could be enforced, is never explained, but even in the privacy of their bedroom the characters shut up when they hit their limit.) What this does to the couple is raise the stakes, making them even more aware of the need to be open and communicate with each other, and after some mild comedy of trying to come up with quota-saving codes, they settle down to thinking really seriously about what they want to say and how important it is to say it, before opening their mouths. Under Ed Madden's direction, it is all done with the light touch of romantic comedy, but is likely to leave the thoroughly entertained audience walking away with some serious thoughts.  Gerald Berkowitz


Mr Laurel And Mr Hardy  
Greenside at Nicholson Square      ***

Despite its title, Mr Laurel And Mr Hardy is less about Stan and Ollie than about their fans, and serves as a reminder of an earlier time when some stars weren't just admired and appreciated but warmly loved. In the 1950s, their Hollywood careers over, Laurel and Hardy toured British music halls with an act built on familiar bits of business from their films, and found a fan base more loyal and ardent than in America. Bearing only the vaguest of physical resemblances to Laurel and Hardy, David Leeson and Colin Alexander don't make any real attempt at impersonation beyond a bit of tie-fluttering and head scratching and a half-hearted go at the Blue Ridge Mountains dance. Instead, Leeson and Alexander play two Manchester fans who worked in the theatre and had the opportunity not only to watch their idols onstage but to socialize with them, and the thrust of their reminiscences is the sheer pleasure of the stars' company. In the process they offer brief biographies of the two individually and as a team, amounting to little more than dates and names, and we might wish for more in the way of fact and anecdote. But in Leeson and Alexander's obvious affection for their subject, and the love they ascribe to the characters they play, Mr Laurel And Mr Hardy evokes the warmth between artists and audiences that a world of constant tweets and viral gossip has lost. Gerald Berkowitz 

Nina   Traverse Theatre      ***
Nina Simone (1933-2003) was a black American blues and jazz singer and civil rights activist. Josette Bushell-Mingo is a black actress born in London, who considers Simone her artistic and political inspiration. Nina begins as a celebration of Simone, evoking the excitement of a 1969 open air concert in Harlem. But then it abruptly changes tack, as Bushell-Mingo drops Simone to present herself as nearly incoherent with rage at unceasing racism today, reaching a climax as she imagines herself murdering every white person in the present audience. Only after having burned through that does she return to Simone, whose music is now a calming and pacifying influence on her. Of course the murderous rage is an act, based though it may very well be on actual feelings, and one problem with the show is that it's not a very convincing one. As a performer, Bushell-Mingo is too controlled and too limited in range to generate any sense of real danger. We're told she's angry, but not really shown it. But that is in keeping with the mode of the whole script (devised by Bushell-Mingo and director Dritero Kasapi). We are told Nina Simone was an important force in the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s but given no evidence. We are told she was an inspiration to the young Bushell-Mingo, but not shown how. This show doesn't have a great deal to say, but it just says it all rather than dramatising it. Meanwhile, Bushell-Mingo sings eight or nine songs as Simone, ranging from Simone's own composition Mississippi Goddam through covers of I Loves You Porgy, Feeling Good, I Got Life and Little Girl Blue. She sings attractively, but not particularly in Simone's style, tending more toward belting than the original's more laid-back and understated style, and with no hint of the jazz singer's toying with rhythms or lyrics. So what we get is one performer simply telling us that another performer influenced her, and singing some songs associated with Simone but not in real imitation of her style. That probably isn't what you came in expecting, and it probably won't be fully satisfying. Gerald Berkowitz


Pip Utton: Churchill 
Pleasance  
  ****  
Pip Utton's career as a portrayer of real people in self-written monologues began almost 20 years ago with a show about Hitler, so it is perhaps about time for him to get around to Churchill, but the wait has certainly been worth it, because this hour is one of Utton's finest. He begins with the fantasy that the statues in Parliament Square come alive for an hour every time Big Ben strikes thirteen ('Lincoln always goes to the theatre – he forgets he won't see the second act.') Utton's Churchill steps down from his plinth to his old offices, pours himself a generous whiskey, and chats amiably with us, not just about historical events, but about his marriage, his cigars and his envy of Nelson for having a bigger column to stand on. Some familiar anecdotes and quotations appear, though Utton tends to steer away from them to more personal insights, like Churchill's egotistical but usually correct assertion that he was almost always right when he and the government of the moment disagreed, and his explanation that his marriage survived despite their having very different interests because they shared one overriding interest – him. Utton doesn't push the impersonation into parody as too many Churchill imitators do – he's padded himself up a little and lowered the natural timbre of his voice, and that's really enough. And as an added attraction to this evocative and entertaining portrayal, there's a lot more humour than some might expect, with Utton's Churchill telling more jokes and getting more laughs than many stand-up comics.    Gerald Berkowitz
A Play, A Pie and A Pint: Conflict In Court   LeMonde Hotel  ***
This venerable lunchtime Fringe institution does indeed include food and drink in the ticket price, along with a setting in a somewhat posher hotel space than the usual Fringe venue. This year's play is a timely courtroom drama, with a Tory MP suing a tabloid newspaper for libel over a story accusing him of spending a night with a rent boy. With volunteers from the audience in the jury box, barristers for both sides question the politician and the editor, followed by questioning from the jury, which requires some ad libbing in character from the witnesses. Then the jury is polled, and on this particular day they went with the MP. To keep things lively there's a certain amount of courtroom humour between the lawyers and judge, and inevitably there's a surprise witness and a last minute after-the-verdict confession. Characterisations throughout are deliberately just this side of cartoonish, to keep the energy level up and the tone light, and a large audience, of a significantly higher median age than is typical of the Fringe, have an enjoyable break in the middle of their day. Gerald Berkowitz

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Playing Maggie   Pleasance   *****  
Fringe veteran and master of the self-written character monologue, Pip Utton lifts the genre onto a new plane with his embodiment of Margaret Thatcher by flying without a net or, in this case, a script. After a conventional opening during which Utton plays a fictional actor preparing for and beginning a performance as Thatcher, he stops and announces that he would rather take questions from the audience, and proceeds to ad lib the rest of the hour, in all cases answering as Thatcher in convincing guesses at what she would have said. Granted that some likely questions could be anticipated and prepared for in advance, Utton has clearly done a massive amount of research on the lady's words and thoughts and organised it in his mind so that the appropriate thing to say about the Falklands, the poll tax, the miners, David Cameron or whatever surprise question comes up is quickly accessible. So thoroughly has Utton absorbed the politician's way of thinking that even when he deflects a question into one he'd rather answer, or when you can sense him vamping for a few seconds until his brain retrieves the proper file, it is exactly the way the Iron Lady would have done it. A remarkable piece of research and memory combines with Utton's signature talent for becoming his character even when, as here, he does not physically resemble her, to create an evocative, provocative and altogether fascinating hour. Gerald Berkowitz

Translunar Paradise  Pleasance Dome      *****
It is hard to believe that mime can be executed much better than the efforts of Theatre Ad Infinitum in this award-winning show. For 75 minutes, Translunar Paradise creator George Mann and Deborah Pugh with an accordionist/vocalist, Kim Heron tell a simple tale in movement and dance with not a word uttered. The story of a loving couple starts at the end, when both are very old, judging by the hand-held facial masks that each wears. The sense of loss that the husband suffers at the loss of his mate is palpable. He is bereft but survives by harking back to happy memories of a long partnership, starting with their meeting, moving through the courting process to marriage, parenthood and old age. Along the way, war intervenes, crippling but not killing the man. The tale is nothing new but the physicality of the performance and haunting music lift Translunar Paradise on to a different level.   Philip Fisher

Two Man Show   Summerhall   *****
One of the most exciting, inventive and beautiful shows on the Fringe, RashDash's exploration of gender and power is the very model of chance-taking theatre that pays off. Performer-writers Helen Goalen and Abbi Greenland, supported musically by Becky Wilkie, use drama, comedy, mime, music and dance as they take turns playing women, men, one of each, and women-stronger-than-men as a way of asserting that femaleness need not be imitation maleness to be powerful. At one point they employ distorting microphones that give them little-girl voices, at another they break the frame to remind themselves which gender they're being just then. Several sequences of self-choreographed dance are beautiful in themselves and effective expressions of bonding and power – all the more so since the two dancers are stripped to the waist for most of them and totally nude for others, and the effect is more evocative of ancient Greek athletes than of eroticism. An extended and passionate speech asserting female power impresses both as an irrefutable argument and as a demonstration of the performer's remarkable ability to sustain the unwavering intensity. This is 'Theatre of Cruelty' of the highest order, using every tool, both violent and seductive, in the artists' toolbox to break through or bypass any audience resistance with overwhelming effect.  Gerald Berkowitz

William Shakespeare's Long Lost First Play (Abridged)   Gilded Balloon   ****
The Reduced Shakespeare Company, the guys (or at least two of them, plus a newby) who started it all in 1981 by putting parodies of all the plays into The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged have found an excellent excuse for a second bite of the apple. The fledgeling playwright, they posit, poured all his imagination into one enormous and until now lost first play, in which all his characters co-exist and from which he later extracted bits and pieces to become plays of their own. The premise has Puck and Ariel as rival sprites one-upping each other in magical mischief by bringing characters we know from different plays together. And that is the excuse for letting Lady Macbeth nag Hamlet into making his mind up about something, Falstaff offer his kingdom for a whore, and a stage-struck Richard determine to be a vaudevillian. The comic juxtapositions, gags and shameless puns come by so quickly that you barely have time to groan at the last one, and every once in a while something actually makes you pause and think, like letting Macbeth's witches double as Lear's daughters or setting up pairings to prove that The Lion King is not the only Disney film based on Shakespeare. This kind of Shakespearean mash-up may no longer be unique to the RSC but there's no denying that they do it best. Gerald Berkowitz

Reviews - Edinburgh Festival 2017 

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