Jafar Iqbal delivers a reviews roundup of his first week at the Edinburgh Fringe watching all things Welsh at the world’s greatest performing arts festival.
Hugh Hughes’ charming story, which moves from Anglesey to Cambridge, explores the lengths that people will go in pursuit of their goals. A limited-edition porcelain figure of The Duke of Wellington, an object of significant sentimental value for our protagonist’s mother, is the goal here.
The Duke tries to be much more than this, though. Hughes draws comparisons to his own journey as an artist and, more topically, the tragic plight of refugees fleeing war-torn countries. It’s a smart allegory, no doubt, but doesn’t fit tonally with the rest of the show. The audience may be invested in the story of the figurine, but not necessarily in that wider social commentary. There aren’t many bells and whistles here, either – it is just Hughes on stage with a laptop, doubling up as performer and sound designer. There’s a warmth to that, and it’s this warmth that stops The Duke from growing dull. It’s a pleasant, if under-developed, hour of storytelling.
It should be admired that Error 404 Theatre Company have spent nine days in Edinburgh. For any new company to do that borders somewhere between brave and misjudged, and it’s unfortunate to say that Wakey Wakey leans heavily towards the latter. The premise – five dysfunctional friends at a wake – is already a laboured one, but the script is plastered with clichéd tropes and predictable set-pieces. The jokes are choreographed to the point that punchlines feel anticlimactic, and the performances suffer as a result. Aside from Dez Edwards and Rhys Lllewelyn, who show potential as the widowed husband and his priest friend, the performances are pretty poor. Some of that is down to how one-dimensional the characters are, but even the actors seem uninterested in what’s going on.
The play plods along with no real energy, with the ending an inevitably. There is no final twist, no saving grace – as it did from the very beginning, Wakey Wakey dies a slow and predictable death.
Roundabout @ Summerhall
Alan Harris’ tale of drugs, murder and talking seals returns to Edinburgh for the second consecutive year, and its as laugh-out-loud funny as it was a year ago. It’s a testament to Harris’ ability as a writer that a production so distinctly of Cardiff can still resonate with people from all parts of the world. The one big change to the production is the casting of a new lead. Taking over the role of small-time drug dealer Marc is Adam Redmore, who looks significantly older than his predecessor. The change in physical expression adds pity for the character, something missing from previous incarnations.
Catherine Paskell’s direction is very much the same, though, and not rejigging the production feels like a missed opportunity from Dirty Protest. However, there’s no denying that the show isn’t really in need of a change and, in a sentiment that Marc himself would probably agree with, why fix something that isn’t broken?
THE DARK PHILOSOPHERS
theSpace @ Niddry St.
Inspired by the life and works of writer Gwyn Thomas, the Italia Conti Ensemble puts on a frenetic and highly enjoyable hour of theatre. There are over twenty performers in the cast, often all on stage at the same time, but credit goes to director Sue Colgrave for controlling the chaos. Controlled chaos is certainly what this is. The actors run around the stage, moving props and scenery as they go, there are barely any moments of stillness. It’s the right way to visualise a narrative that moves back and forth in time, and the performers match that with a youthful energy.
What holds the production back is its running time. Though longer than the usual hour there isn’t enough time to tell every story, so each ending feels rushed. It’s still a solid piece of theatre, however, and a respectable homage to the iconic Welshman.
HEARD THE ONE ABOUT IDENTITY THEFT? WITH THE REAL BENNETT ARRON
The Stand Comedy Club 2
Bennett Arron has won some big awards in his twenty-plus years as a comedian, and performed alongside some big names. He’s clearly a performer of some stature, but this isn’t the show to prove it.
The story – a true one – is very interesting: upon moving to London, Arron was the subject of a fraud so problematic that it almost ruined his life. It’s a great premise for an hour of comedy, but the jokes aren’t strong enough and Arron doesn’t come across as a confident storyteller. Rather than the performance of a veteran comedian, he has the delivery of a man telling a story in a pub – meandering and occasionally going off in unnecessary tangents. Identity theft is a very important subject to explore, and the potential is there in Arron’s story for something very strong. That potential is far from realised, though, and that’s a shame.
CHRIS CHOPPING’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND
Three Broomsticks – Room 6
Young comic Chris Chopping is quick to assert that his new hour of comedy isn’t a storytelling piece, but there’s no denying the current of post-breakup melancholy that bubbles under the surface of his routine. Riffs on frozen dinners, weight loss and online dating are hardly original, but, in bringing everything back to his ex-girlfriend, Chopping just about manages to stop short of falling into generic territory. There is an initial shakiness to his delivery but, as the audience start to warm to him, you can see him relax. The performance grows stronger, the jokes feel funnier.
Chopping isn’t helped by the venue – the ‘auditorium’ was a sell-out at eleven people – forcing him to engage in audience participation. It’s not something he does comfortably, highlighting the fact that this is a comic still in need of polishing, but a comic with potential.
HOW MY LIGHT IS SPENT
Greenside @ Nicolson Square
Alan Harris’ two-hander has all the humour and irreverence of his other work, including his other Edinburgh show Sugar Baby. What’s lacking in Aaron Kilercioglu’s production of How My Light is Spent is the required energy. Part of this is down to a frustratingly small stage, not giving performers Anna Wright (Kitty) and Harry Redding (Jimmy) the space to properly perform. More could have been done with what they had, though. Individually Wright and Redding are excellent performers, displaying a good versatility in their roles. As an on-stage couple, though, the chemistry just isn’t quite there. What brings Kitty and Kimmy together is their mutual quirkiness, but neither actor pushes that far enough to make it believable. Susi Mauer’s design work is well done, though, especially the use of lighting. Colours change as moods change, painting an otherwise bare stage with much-needed colour. The colours don’t hide the fundamental flaws though, and the play suffers as a result.
MATT REES: HAPPY HOUR
It wouldn’t be remiss to suggest that Matt Rees may be the miracle lovechild of Jack Dee and Victor Mildrew. Far too curmudgeonly for his years, the comedian discusses a battle with alcoholism with a permanent scowl on his face. It’s a tactic that serves him well. At times, it feels like the audience is part of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and Rees our current sharer. Anecdotes about his drunken mishaps are given matter-of-factly – he isn’t seeking sympathy or pity, just an understanding. That and laughs, which he gets plenty of.
It’s the one-liners that get most of those laughs, and they are his biggest weapon. As good as Rees is at telling a story, its quips about the Megabus and Poundland that generate the best response. It all goes back to that curmudgeonly spirit – this is a performer who should, and hopefully will, get better with age.
THE BEST OF THE REST
THE POLITICAL HISTORY OF SMACK AND CRACK
Roundabout @ Summerhall
Ed Edwards’ stunning play does pretty much what it says on the tin. Over the course of an hour, The Political History of Smack and Crack explores the rise of heroin use in working-class Manchester. This is far from just a history lesson though; it’s a docudrama full of heart.
Eve Steele and Neil Bell are exceptional as Mandy and Neil, narrating the story of their life fending on the streets of Manchester. Heroin quickly turns from solace to addiction, until they’re both seemingly beyond help.
Creddisa Brown’s minimalist direction is well judged. It’s a bare stage, yet the city comes alive thanks to Richard Williamson’s excellent lighting design. With Jon McLeod’s score in the background, the play hurtles along to an unpredictable ending. It doesn’t end as some may expect, which brings its own satisfaction as a viewer. A must-watch.
ONE LIFE STAND
Roundabout @ Summerhall
This is gig theatre at its very best. Hull-based company Middle Child Theatre presents an undisputedly cool and stylish look at the effect that social media has on dating and relationships. With the music of James Frewer and Honeyblood playing alongside, our three protagonists wander the late-night streets of Hull in search of something – and someone – better than they already have.
One Life Stand pulses with a youthful and sexually charged energy which is both exciting and unsettling at times. It’s as much about the human condition as it is about vice and, while the audience may not agree with every decision, they can certainly empathise.
As flawed as they are, the audience does want what’s best for the leads, and a happy ending feels cathartic. What actually happens is far more interesting, however. It may not be the climax everyone wants, but it’s the climax that makes the most sense. An astutely written ending to a superb play.