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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. 

Unlike previous years we did not send a full team to Edinburgh in 2018, but our limited staff will be sending reviews. Meanwhile, many companies play London previews or return with shows from previous years, and we reprint our reviews of some of them here.

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.

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And This Is My Friend Mr. Laurel   Pleasance      ****  (Reviewed at a previous Festival)
Thanks to series such as Hi-de-Hi! And You Rang M’Lord, Jeffrey Holland has the comic credentials and the hangdog features that make him perfect to take on the role of Stan Laurel. In this solo homage to the English half of Laurel and Hardy, he plays it straight with more than a few laughs to create an engrossing portrait of Ulverstone’s greatest son. Here the set-up is a Californian hospital where Laurel is visiting Hardy who has had a stroke and failing fast. Talking to Hardy in his ward bed, Laurel finds himself reminiscing on the ups and downs of their past, seeking comfort for them both in their ability to take any challenge in their stride. There’s a disastrous film in France, a tour of a grim post-war UK, battles with the studio bosses, even being lured into a meeting with Bernard Delfont for the US This Is Your Life and bemoaning the fact that they wouldn’t get paid for it. He doesn’t shirk from their personal lives, and so details his seven marriages while worrying about Hardy’s weakness for the horses. Gail Louw and Jeffrey Holland have written a gentle script that concentrates on the showbiz marriage of the comedians rather than the comic process itself – a wise move because it allows Holland to show the working process of their inspired partnership. This also ensures that any comic material contrasts nicely and is all the more effective for it. When Holland regularly breaks into the monologue by popping on a bowler to uncannily become Laurel’s screen alter ego Stan, enacting classic yet now poignant routines, the effect is spellbinding and magically, timelessly funny. Nick Awde

Angry Alan   Underbelly      *****
Penelope Skinner has two major plays on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2018, as this solo show joins Meek at the Traverse. Angry Alan will make a lot of viewers angry, and that is the writer's intention. The clever part is that many might reluctantly but insidiously find themselves occasionally agreeing with the views of Roger, played by Donald Sage Mackay, and the men's rights activists that he begins to follow. Having lost his job, his girlfriend and contact with his son, Roger has every right to feel a little lost. He seeks comfort on the Internet, not necessarily in the most obvious way, but instead by discovering a group of activists offering solutions that sound plausible to a man searching for some kind of meaning to his life. Basically, the messages assert that men are ill-treated and need to fight back. (Apparently, all of the YouTube videos used in the making of the show are genuine, which is pretty terrifying.) Roger cuts himself off from reality and heads for an expensive conference with dangerous guru Angry Alan, taking his son along to bond. A shock disclosure by the 14-year-old chastens Dad and changes the nature of a well-constructed, jarring play that will haunt visitors long after they leave the theatre.  Philip Fisher

The Approach   Assembly Hall   ****
In Edinburgh, almost everything seems to be designed to amuse or to race along. Irish writer/director Mark O'Rowe's work, The Approach, is therefore refreshing, as a serious, thoughtful piece that comprises little beyond pairs of women talking for 70 minutes. Part of the attraction and the reason for concentrating is the need to spot contradictions between their stories but also correspondences. In the opening scene, Cathy Belton as Cora and Aisling O'Sullivan playing Anna discuss the latter's sister Denise, who had apparently stolen the love of Anna's life, a man that died shortly afterwards. Immediately, two themes emerge and then keep recurring – love and death. A year later Cora and Derbhle Crotty's Denise then have a similar conversation, with different emphases from which the serious rift between the sisters becomes much clearer and seems irreparable. Moving on a year or two more, Anna and Denise complete the original circle, showing that none of these ladies has any luck in love, while death and disappointment stalk the trio. The Approach is a quiet, unassuming play with one of the best casts to be found on the Fringe. It is a play about yearning that almost literally gets to the heart of life for those approaching middle-age without having found a long-term partner.   Philip Fisher

Austentatious   Underbelly Bristo Square   ***  (reviewed at a previous Festival)
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
Brexit   Pleasance    ***
Brexit, by Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky, is one of those plays that utilises a selection from the massive corps of comedians with time to spare during the day to make up a cast. The hour-long drama follows the efforts of hapless and hopeless British Prime Minister Adam Masters, played by Timothy Bentinck, to steer a course through the minefield of Brexit. As with the real version, this is nigh on impossible, despite the wise but possibly duplicitous help of Mike McShane's American friend/adviser. Then again, duplicity is the order of the day. Following that principle, the PM decides that his optimum solution is to play off two newly-appointed ministers from conflicting factions. Hal Cruttenden's Cavendish is a slimily confident right winger (bearded and without blond hair before anyone jumps to the wrong conclusion) desperate for 'no deal'. His opposite number, albeit from the same party, Pippa Evans as Diana, doesn't want to leave at all. The political analysis may be simplistic but the issues and sentiments feel reasonably authentic, as Masters juggles desperately while getting further and further out of his depth. Adding an extra dimension is Jo Caulfield playing the EU negotiator, whose solutions may be closer to the real thing than anything else in the play and, if that turns out to be the case, alarm bells should be ringing in Westminster.  Philip Fisher

Flies   Pleasance    **
Every once in a while, theatre-goers are forced to ask themselves why a team would endeavour to create the piece of theatre they’ve just been forced to endure. This was the unfortunate case with FLIES, a viscerally jarring and seemingly unending show that charts the journey of a man’s obsessively destructive paranoia about flies. There are no arcs to the show, just a constant thrum of anxiety and pain with no character changes or revelations. The Les Enfantes Terrible company is a Fringe favourite and has served up spectacular theatre in the past, but something seems amiss with this show and its seeming lack of purpose or vision beyond making the audience very uncomfortable for an hour. Unless one is looking to replicate the experience of a grotesque panic attack with no deeper message, insight or reprieve, it cannot be highly recommended. The performers themselves are quite capable and try hard with the confounding material, and a few sonic and musical moments are interesting in terms of craft, but overall your time might be better spent elsewhere if you want to leave a show feeling anything other than confused and assaulted.  Hannah Friedman

Dean Friedman   Sweet Grassmarket      ****    (reviewed at a previous Festival)
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.

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

Games   Gilded Balloon      *****
Henry Naylor's star continues to rise and this two-hander is a gem. Set in Germany as Hitler began to change the world forever, it focuses on two young female athletes. Tessie Orange-Turner's Helene Mayer is an impeccably blonde gold medallist fencer with a Jewish father but Aryan mother. The country's best high jumper, Gretel Bergmann, portrayed by Avital Lvova, is the real thing, Jewish through and through. For an hour we follow this pair as they try to break records, win tournaments and make the team for the Berlin Olympics 1936, despite the seemingly insuperable handicap of their racial origins. Using poetic language and great dramatic intuition, Henry Naylor, giving great support by director Louise Skaaning, creates a gripping work that builds to a thrilling finale and deserves to win awards.  Philip Fisher

Good Women   Laughing Horse@The Counting House    *****
A hilarious and brilliant show tucked into an attic room at the free Counting House part of Edfringe. Three women battle to become celebrated in the world of lyrical liturgical dance. That's right, they're ribbon-dancing for Jesus and they don't care what it takes to win. Strange you say? Strap in for an absolutely delightful and surprisingly heartfelt ride. This script is packed with whip-smart subversive feminism and the cast is a joy to watch. Emma Rendell, Eva Scott and Emily Steck (who also penned the script) embody their unique characters with lovable quirks and a fizzy intensity, and we root for them even as their deeper dysfunctions come tumbling out in manic and hysterical candour. A tribute to sisterhood, to sticking it to the 'man,' and to making beautiful honest theater even in the tiniest of spaces, this company is sure to serve up more excellent work, and this show will leave you smiling for the rest of the Fringe! Brava, Good Women-- nay, Great!  Hannah Friedman

Gratiano   Assembly Rooms      **   (reviewed at a previous Festival)
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

Island Town   Paines Plough Roundabout at Summerhall     ***
Simon Longman has created a detailed reminiscence of the vacuity of youth. Island Town follows a trio of youngsters in a drab, depressing northern town, for a three-year period starting when they are 15. They are a fairly representative bunch. Katharine Pearce's Kate is disappointed, Jack Wilkinson as Pete wants to get a shag, while Sam played by Charlotte O'Leary is the relatively grounded one. As in much of Jim Cartwight's work, nothing much happens but the youngsters' psychology is laid bare. Violence and a constant cycle of births liven up what would otherwise be long periods of total tedium. Drink and drugs help – but not that much. Limited joy combined with unlimited anger and frustration intermingle as the youngsters contemplate the future, which might well consist of little more than following their parents into dead end jobs or unemployment, families expanding but bringing little happiness. Over around 75 minutes, the writer sensitively builds a convincingly detailed portrait of the trio, aided by strong performances under the direction of Stef O'Driscoll. Philip Fisher

Janis Joplin: Full Tilt   Assembly Rooms    ****  (reviewed at a previous Festival)
Hailed as the first lady of rock when the genre emerged in the late 60s, Janis Joplin was iconic long before her death at 27. Impassioned vocalists abounded at the time, but the Texan singer’s accolade came from her instinctive ability to take those vocal talents into the realm of pure performance. And here she runs through her short life, pausing to deliver the career-defining songs – including a supremely winsome arrangement of Mercedes Benz – that were defined and driven by her suburban roots, life in the fast lane as rock’s new royalty, and descent into hard drug hell. Onstage too are her four-piece electric band, patiently framing her, as if guarding the talent that somehow survived despite Joplin’s journey to self-destruction. Angie Darcy has both the tonsils and the drama to capture Joplin’s spirit while wisely playing to the strengths of her own voice. As the drugs take over, she retreats to her dressing table, where the heroin lurks under the trademark Pearl feathers, and she makes a final plea for the right to self-definition even if it is via an alter-ego created on the world stage. Peter Arnott’s script cleverly incorporates many of Joplin’s own words, and, under Cora Bissett’s careful directorial eye, the result is an unsentimental show that is a celebration equally of breakthrough music and of one woman and her struggle to control her life and identity. A slight shame is that the songs, although clear crowdpleasers, tend to be samey, meaning that the show doesn’t quite hit the concluding high-point. Admittedly the mix is not as clear as it should be – yes this is a temporary Edinburgh space, but (a) it has a soundcheck pedigree after Forest Fringe’s pioneering work there, and (b) there are five musicians plus crew who should have the skill to tweak things.  Nick Awde

A Joke   Assembly Rooms    ***
There are echoes of Samuel Beckett in A Joke but also a harking back to the music hall routines that were so popular half a century and more ago. In this 70 minute long absurdist comedy by Dan Freeman, three men dressed in white on a set that resembles a room awaiting the decorators try to discover the meaning of their own existence. Given their relatively advanced age, the best bet is probably a stay in limbo but who knows? In a desperate attempt to define some kind of structure, the character played by former Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy determines that they must be an Englishman (John Bett), an Irishman (McCoy) and a Scotsman. This would be the perfect setup for a joke, were the Scotsman, played by Robert Picardo, not so obviously American. Eventually deciding for no very logical reason beyond that unlikely and ineffective connection the men conclude that they might well be the components of some kind of joke. This frees up the trio to experiment with a variety of jokes of their own, some of them very funny but none particularly new. This element is likely to be the attraction for a standard Fringe audience. It is highly possible that academics might have different ideas, seeking to determine much deeper, unspoken meanings beneath the surface of the piece.  Philip Fisher

Let's Inherit The Earth   Pleasance    **
This one must have sounded like a good idea but feels a long way from the finished product, despite the credentials of a strong creative team. A tale of dystopia after climate change ridding the planet of almost all of its inhabitants should be a sure-fire winner, especially when accompanied by a series of powerfully rendered punk songs to fill out 80 minutes. In fact, this production directed by Ben Harrison with actors from Scotland and Sweden meanders into meaninglessness.There are two focus points. First, some rich survivors drink themselves into oblivion, while in a separate strand two families meet in barren wastes somewhere between Sweden and Scotland and bemoan their sad fate.The culture clashes are predictable, while confusion reigns for all. Philip Fisher

Milo McCabe: 1001 Moments With Troy    Laughing Horse at Three Sisters    ****
A masterful and witty wonderland. Milo McCabe’s character is a delight to behold, in all of his feather-pen-wielding glory. An effortless and hilarious bit of standup at the start transitions into strange and clever multimedia explorations of Troy's deeper obsessions with Scrabble numbers, bingo-halls, Princess Diana, and deep conspiracies therein. You get the sense that you're in the hands of a very experienced and talented performer right as he takes the stage, but once the video presentation bits unfold and begin to link up we realize what a unique mind we are in the presence of. A very enjoyable romp that inspires looking forward to future 'Troy' shows.  Hannah Friedman

Private Peaceful   Underbelly Bristo Square     ****  (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

Spaces   Sweet Grassmarket     ****
A beautifully conceived and performed exploration of the struggles four women cope with at university. These actresses have put together a truly moving and impressive piece of new theater. Tales of crippling anxiety disorder and matters of faith, racial identity and sexual categorization are deftly handled by this very talented company. Each woman possesses an ease and earnestness that made them very compelling to watch, and an honesty and vulnerability that made it impossible to look away. The first and last moments of the show are the only sour notes, as they default away from the beautifully real portrayals of emotion into a more sophomoric and stilted combination of phrases and repeated lines that are disconnected from any real emotion, and not as successful at tying together the themes as the actual scenes themselves. This aside, Spaces is still an ambitious and worthwhile piece – and these women are ones to watch!  Hannah Friedman

Sticks and Stones   Paines Plough Roundabout at Summerhall     ****
It may be a comedy but Sticks and Stones is hard-hitting, In just over an hour, it makes a series of trenchant points about society today. The opening is deceptively simple, as Katherine Pearce's B, a “DaddyMummy” with a high-powered office job faces a crisis. In a client meeting, she unthinkingly told a risque joke, which included a word that had recently become unacceptable in polite company. Worse, the word (which is only conveyed by electrical bleeping and physical jerks) is incendiary in Internet terms. The play follows B's painful journey from rising star to the depths of despair and unemployment, wittily and convincingly showing how innocent actions can become suicide bullets when trolls become active. Katherine Pearce is excellent and gets good support from Jack Wilkinson and Charlotte O'Leary, each playing multiple roles. Stef O'Driscoll directs in flamboyant style using physical theatre techniques and a series of sounds and movements to save the audience from being assailed by unacceptable language and ideas. Philip Fisher

Three Years, One Week and a Lemon Drizzles   Underbelly    ***
This ambitious production is the brainchild of two sisters, Alexandra and Kate Donnachie, who share their experiences surrounding the year in which Alexandra suffered from anorexia. Their sisterly banter is easy and effortless, the actresses are both accomplished, and the show is at its strongest when they reveal their deepest feelings about the year. However, the most truly emotional and candid parts of the experience are only touched upon briefly, leaving the audience craving more of the raw central stuff and a little less of the cutesy wrapping. Kate and Alex’s live diary entries are juxtaposed to show that while Kate worried about getting into drama school, doing well on auditions, and meeting up with friends, all Alex could think about was food. But whatever was beneath that compulsion is left to the imagination, as is the story of the road to recovery, making this piece less effective than it could be with a few more layers peeled away. Still, this is difficult subject matter treated with humour and performed with grace, and hopefully Ms. Donnachie will continue to write and endeavour to delve even deeper.  Hannah Friedman

Tremor   Paines Plough Roundabout at Summerhall     ****
Brad Birch has written an edgy two hander that proves to be a psychologically astute investigation into the ways in which people behave under extreme stress. It also looks deeply into the manner in which the media has begun to override truth and control our minds. A well-judged production, directed by David Mercatali for Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, centres around a reunion between Paul Rattray as Tom and Louise Collins playing Sophie, former partners but long estranged. At Tom's home, they relive the kind of experience that changes lives. Some years before, the pair had been travelling on a bus that disappeared off a bridge killing 32 people but leaving them amongst seven miraculous survivors. Slowly, while discussing the missing years and Tom's new life and family, they begin to delve back into the past. The memories are painful but might also prove cathartic. In particular, Birch introduces an underlying theme of racial prejudice, since the driver who was convicted and imprisoned but is now in the final throes of terminal cancer is a devout Muslim. Since his conviction largely depended upon evidence given by Tom that he was drunk, tensions rise as Sophie attempts to make the liberal case for innocence, expanding the fate of the bus driver into that of so many of his British peers. In response, Tom defends his own actions, trotting out views that will be familiar to many of those who have listened to debates about nationalism in the context of Europe and more widely in recent times. Tremor is a clever, well-written and superbly acted play that will leave viewers pondering their own opinions long after the end of the 70 minute running time. Philip Fisher

Trump/Lear   Pleasance    **
There seem to be a multitude of Donald Trump skits on the Fringe in 2018. This one from America sells itself as a comedy that pits the President against a “fond, foolish, wise old man”. In theory, this sounds like a blast. Carl David starts out debating with an off-stage DT, potentially risking execution for treason if he allows the show to go on. Bringing out a team of low-tech puppets, most representing White House figures of past and present plus Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un, he spends an hour trying to satirise the great egotist, while using the story of another as a frame. Eventually, the conceit breaks down so that the performance becomes little more than a series of often not terribly funny jibes at a figure of power and fun.  Philip Fisher

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Reviews - Edinburgh Fringe  2018