Jafar Iqbal delivers a reviews roundup of his second week at the Edinburgh Fringe watching all things Welsh at the world’s greatest performing arts festival.
Roundabout @ Summerhall
Island Townis frightening. It’s not a feeling that comes immediately; it creeps up slowly in Simon Longman’s play about three teenagers stuck in a small town. Their lives are defined by poverty, broken families and the inability to escape. Longman’s script infuses the patter of working class youth with a beautiful and enchanting lyricism.
At the heart of this thrilling drama is Kate (Katherine Pearce): an alcoholic at fifteen, full of rage, desperate to escape. Pearce’s performance is astonishing, an unpredictability to it that is exhilarating. Charlotte O’Leary and Jack Wilkinson are right there with her, arguably with roles that aren’t as meaty but still so superbly executed.
Director Stef O’Driscoll does away with props and a set, opting for Peter Small’s lighting to fill the space. So much darkness makes the play even more claustrophobic, and its almost a relief when the show ends. It’s frightening.
HOT GAY TIME MACHINE
In a programme made up of several thousand productions, standing out is hard to do, but that’s exactly what Hot Gay Time Machine does. With its outrageous double-act (Toby Marlow and Zak Ghazi-Torbati) guiding proceedings, the raucous audience is given a whirlwind trip through the important milestones in a gay man’s life.
Toby and Zak are clearly having a lot of fun on stage, and that bleeds into their performances. Their energy is infectious, their songs laugh-out-loud funny, their dancing appropriately flamboyant. It’s their interaction with the audience that really impresses though – Hot Gay Time Machine is very much a party and, if everyone isn’t in the mood going in, they certainly are when they leave.
As well as being a high-energy crowd-pleaser, the show has genuine heart. Hot Gay Time Machine isn’t just about feeling proud as a gay man, it’s about feeling proud as a flamboyant gay man. It’s a celebration of diversity that we can all get behind. So to speak.
Gilded Balloon Teviot
If someone wants to understand what the meaning of ‘fringe’ really is, point them in the direction of Space Doctor, the zany brainchild of StraightUp Productions. Paying homage to the early years of Doctor Who, this outrageously bonkers hour of theatre moves through space, time and increasing levels of absurdity.
Characters in the show include the Welsh superfan bordering on stalker territory, the former companion now only able to speak in soap opera clichés and Henry VIII (yes, that one). There’s a narrative in there somewhere, but the joy is in watching the actors interact with shoddy props, horrendous costumes and their own incompetence.
Let’s be clear here: Space Doctor doesn’t work because of artistic brilliance. It works because the team have taken a very low budget and made the most of every single penny. The actors are having tons of fun and, more importantly, they’re in on the joke. It makes for great viewing.
BENNETT ARRON: I’VE NEVER TOLD ANYONE THIS
Underbelly, Bristo Square
One of Bennett Arron’s defining features is his smile – there’s a mischief in it that he seems unable to hide, and it’s disarmingly pleasant. His newest hour of comedy, in which he reveals secrets to the audience, plays heavily on that mischief. It starts off innocently enough with embarrassing school stories, but damning anecdotes about the entertainment industry take the show into a slightly darker realm.
Arron is careful not to let it stray too far down the dark route, though, and his patter with the audience keeps everything light-hearted. Short sketches played on a TV screen feel out of place in the show, but are funny nonetheless.
Arron has a confidence in this show that seems to be lacking in his other show at the Fringe this year. While his material may not have the edge or strong statements that other comedians have, he is a solid hand and worth a watch.
Rather than attack from the off, David Martin’s fascinating two-hander creeps up on the audience. Set in a therapist’s office, this harrowing piece of new writing explores the ramifications that child abuse has on a woman’s life. Lucy Elzik is outstanding as the Woman, playing a complex character with just the right amount of sensitivity and matter-of-factness.
Martin also stars in the piece as the Therapist, the man tasked with drawing out these painful memories. The two have a wonderful chemistry, helped by Martin’s zippy dialogue. There is a lull halfway through the show, as though Martin was trying to fill time, but it picks up again with a major twist in the final third.
Jacqs Graham’s direction is a strong-point too. A cluttered stage is a great analogy for the Woman’s state of mind, a stage that slowly gets uncluttered. A haunting soundscape looms over the production, adding to the unsettling ambience of this great show.
Roundabout @ Summerhall
After a successful run in Wales, Sherman Theatre brings Brad Birch’s tense drama to Edinburgh. It doesn’t seem to have lost any of its resonance – the production is still as relevant and powerful as it was on first viewing. The major difference is, of course, the change in cast member. Louise Collins steps into the role of Sophie, originally performed by Lisa Diveney, and gives the role a refreshing makeover.
Collins’ Sophie is far more fragile in the first half of the play and far more aggressive in the second. In turn, Paul Rattray’s Tom feels more vicious than his original iteration. While that sinister edge feels truer to his character, it also has the adverse effect of undercutting the shock of the final twist.
Tremor is still a beautifully written piece of theatre, though, and director David Mercatali once again gets the best from his actors. Perhaps the final sequence is more telegraphed, but it doesn’t fail to surprise.
THE FLYBOYS: A POSTMODERN SWING SENSATION!
Gilded Balloon Rose Theatre
Such is the pace and energy of The FlyBoys that an hour in their company doesn’t seem long enough. This quartet of superb singers croon their way through some of the modern music’s greatest hits. Artists like Adele, Pharrell Williams and Ed Sheeran are given the swing treatment, performed in the style of a music hall in the thirties and forties.
Particular highlights include an unusually cheerful spin on Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer”, while a harmonised version of Elton John’s “Your Song” manages to bring more romance to that classic. Where the show falls down is its use of music. The team choose to sing over a recording (rather than a live band) but, at times, that music is deafening and drowns out the performers.
It is, after all, the four singers that are front and centre here, and deservedly so. The hour flies by in the company of The FlyBoys and the audience leave thoroughly entertained.
A ROBINSON CRUSOE OF THE SOUL
Yawn The Post’s solo show is billed as forty-five minutes but clocks in at just about thirty. Had it been a quality piece of theatre, this would be no problem, but A Robinson Crusoe of the Soul is by no means up to standard. Concurrently a story of Welsh writer Arthur Machen’s visit to Victorian London and a lecture on Machen’s homeland, it never really explores either properly.
In fact, the show induces confusion more than anything else. The script intentionally flits between the poetic and the academic, but they don’t mesh well and the delivery therefore feels very jarring. The use of loop pedals only slows the performer down – it’s clear that there should be immediate shifts in tone, but the audience are left waiting while the right music is lined up.
It’s a shame that at the same time that really good hour-long shows are being offered free of charge, under-developed shows like this aren’t only paid, but shortchanged.
FREE STAND-UP WILL NEVER DIE
There’s something to admire about Steffan Alun’s commitment to providing free comedy at the Fringe. At a festival where so many paid shows are lacklustre, the Welsh comedian provides 45 minutes of excellent entertainment for nothing.
Alun has a lot of energy on stage, constantly moving about (even in the dangerously sold-out room). That spring in his step is infectious, and the audience are invested immediately. He’s also great at riffing with the audience, showing an ability to improvise that belies his experience.
It takes a while for the crux of the show to become apparent, and that part of the show feels rushed. There’s certainly an hour’s worth of material hiding in there somewhere, if he chooses to go in that direction. He’s a comic with great potential, one to continue keeping an eye on.
HOLLY MORGAN: MADONNA OR WHORE?
Welsh comic Holly Morgan gives a rollicking one-hour performance about misogyny, female empowerment and Madonna. Using the Queen of Pop’s back catalogue, Morgan draws from all of her artistic abilities to walk the audience through some of history’s greatest injustices against women. It’s essentially a variety show, with stand-up, cabaret, jukebox musical and drama all touched on.
Despite its powerful premise the show retains a wackiness throughout, largely thanks to the interplay between Morgan and her assistant (re: fiancé) Tom Moores. He’s integral to the piece, both as a foil for Morgan’s shenanigans but also as a quasi-stage hand. A prime example of this is Morgan’s stunning rendition of ‘Vogue’, sung in the style of other performers as Moores lists them on placards.
Madonna or Whoreis, of course, designed to entertain, but that doesn’t dilute the seriousness of what she’s talking about. Her account of being harassed by a well-known arts figure is genuinely moving, and brings the show full-circle. But, of course, it ends with a massive singalong of ‘Like a Prayer’ to send the audience happy. A superb show.
THE BEST OF THE REST
CanadaHub @ King’s Hall (in association with Summerhall)
Adam Lazarus’ one-man show isn’t for the easily offended. Essentially a play about misogyny through the eyes of a man, Daughterexplores the relationship that The Father has with women in their life. It’s deliberately uncomfortable viewing – the joyous tone with which it begins is disconcerting, and it only gets worse from there.
What starts to unravel through the monologue is that The Father is, perhaps, not a very nice man. The audience fully believes in the love he has for his daughter in the opening sequence, but that belief is shattered after a somewhat shocking revelation. That sets the stage for confessions about The Father’s interest in sex and pornography and, ultimately, his disregard for women as anything more than sexual objects.
The show starts and ends with Lazarus dancing, and the response is drastically different each time. It’s the uncomfortable end to a show that never lets up. The response may well be divisive, but it deserves to be seen.
ZOE LYONS: ENTRY LEVEL HUMAN
Gilded Balloon Teviot
An entry level human, as Zoe Lyons articulately explains, is a person who seems to struggle with the simple things in life. The sort of people you wouldn’t trust if your life depended on it. At least, that’s what she initially argues. Over the course of this very funny hour Lyons demonstrates that, at our core, we’re all entry level humans on some level.
Lyons’ anecdotes range from the trivial (the inspirational quote craze) to the topical (Brexit, of course) but there’s an amusing consistency to her delivery. She seems to take the idiocy of hotel carpets as seriously as the idiocy of world leaders, giving slight irreverence to what is already a polished routine.
At the heart of it, Lyons paints the picture of humanity as people just trying to make the best of things, and she uses her own life experiences to demonstrate that. It’s a thoroughly entertaining show but, crucially, it’s a heart-warming one too.
AND BEFORE I FORGET I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU
Pip Utton has made a career out of giving exceptional solo performances, including playing Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill, but this production is far more personal. Instead of playing a historical figure, Utton takes on the role of an ordinary man succumbing to the ravages of dementia.
It’s a remarkable performance from the actor, who’s physical transformation is frighteningly realistic. His deterioration is documented simply by trips to the doctor, where the audience see him turn from sharp and alert to a shell of his former self.
The final sequence of the play shifts focus to the son, needed to wrap the play up properly. However, it’s a jarring change of pace, complete with an overly-long costume change. However, it’s a moving final monologue, and offers respite to the audience after a harrowing show. Utton is on top form, and fully deserves any plaudits that come his way.
Roundabout @ Summerhall
Square Go, co-written by Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair, may very well be the funniest show in Edinburgh this year. Two thirteen-year olds are hiding in the school toilets, an hour before one of them – Max – has to fight the school bully.
There is so much to unpack in this show that it’s difficult to believe that it only lasts an hour. Some of the themes Hurley and McNair explore are bullying, working class Scotland, childhood friendships and the notion of manhood – and that’s on top of the story of Max (played by Scott Fletcher) preparing for the fight with the help of best friend Stevie (Gavin Jon Wright).
It’s the relationship between the two leads that stands out in this superb show. They may be best friends on stage, but you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re best friends off it, such is the chemistry between the two. Every aspect of Square Go is a roaring success, it’s must-watch theatre.