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Fringe Diaries- Thursday 15th August

Today turned out to be a four show day at the Fringe. Two of those I was invited to see and comment upon here, two cost me a tenner each and will comment upon anyway. I note that £10 is a bit of a price rise, which would in normal circumstances lead us into a bit of a debate around fair ticket pricing for the Fringe. I don’t want to go down that particular avenue right now as I have quite a lot to talk about and not enough time, so shut up and read about what I saw.

I had a review to finish off for a show I saw in Keswick (Very good, go and see it) before seeing The Heresy Machine at Greenside on the Royal Terrace at 11.25am. I’d been invited to see it so obviously wasn’t going to refuse, particularly when I became aware that the show was about Alan Turing, the scientist who broke the Enigma code and went on to pioneer computer science. I’m pretty interested in the human story of this guy as he is only just being recognised as the national hero he is after the hideous treatment he received when he was alive. Unfortunately The Heresy Machine seemed to focus more on Turing’s relationship with a computer without any authentic attempts to investigate Turing or his story.

The writing is incredibly verbose which leads to a disconnect with the actors and audience in understanding what the piece is about. Use of phrases such as “promethean instincts” did not endear me, smacking of self indulgence and academic superiority. An artists job is to convey meaning and in this they seemed satisfied in their own understanding of the piece but placed no importance on whether or not their audience could.

Looking at the facebook page for the Section 175 Collective they define themselves as a group of cyborgs working to create postgender posthuman futurity in our time.” Again, this makes no sense to this reviewer.

So accepting the fact that this is a lexically challenging production, I consider what can be taken from it in a visual sense. It incorporates physical theatre and even a little ballet set to a jarring electronic soundscape. There’s multimedia projections and it fulfils its description of being “transdisciplinary,” whatever that is meant to be defined as precisely, yet with no clear artistic storytelling aim. It’s a tragic shame that story wise I didn’t get more out of this than I would have liked and felt nothing to connect me to the piece. I don’t feel it’s all my fault by any means though.

I had another show to get to not long after that which required a fair sized walk from the Royal Terrace to the Pleasance, via Pie Maker for a Scotch pie lunch (has to be done when in Edinburgh), to see Manchester based company Ransack presenting their one man storytelling show Chasing Comets.  There’s a lot to talk about here and some of it very beautiful. I don’t quite know how to explain what it is about but if I said Rambo films, a love story, worries of masculine inadequacy and a comet heading towards the earth this gives you some of the key themes in this whirlwind of a production.

Chasing Comets has a slightly unusual design concept of a square of rope pulleys which transport what I can only describe as a magic crystal ball around the space. As absurd as it sounds I find a great mystery in how the ball is lit in multi colours. It’s one of those tiny, almost insignificant yet fascinating and magical things that I’m still thinking about. Unfortunately I can’t find much information about who plays Toby the protagonist as I’d quite like to praise him for an excellent performance.

Onwards to my next show and it’s a well known classic which I take the opportunity to see Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck. I entered having never seen or read Woyzeck but knowing from the frequency of productions here at the Edinburgh Fringe that it’s a significant theatrical work which I should experience. On leaving at the end though I’m still non the wiser as to what it is about.

I hope it’s not me being dense in not understanding some of these shows but I think with this one I can put my finger on where the problems lie. In the first instance Woyzeck was never completed by Georg Buchner so a range of artistic interpretations have been allowed. In this one a normally significant cast list has been wittled down to three with the undoubtedly talented actors taking on multiple roles but too many for an audience to keep track of. As a result it’s never clear which character is speaking to who. On top of this, the needs of a Fringe festival require significant editing which leaves this version unintelligible to one uninitiated in the play. The actors knew what they were about and went about that with vigour. Unfortunately a clear telling of the story never cut through.

I will give some credit to this team though that there was some considerable effort in design ideas with a creative use of live sound through a loop machine created onstage. There are some great ideas coming through from a talented group but unfortunately this production didn’t communicate as a whole piece.

After this I felt I deserved a curry so off to the Mosque Kitchen before my last show of the day, one which I’d been requested to review.

I’ll say from the outset that Takin it Easy 1916 was not a good show. It’s a comedy about a village near Swindon who are astonished to find that an outsider will be opening the village fete. It’s like Royston Vasey on overdrive only far less funny as there’s only so far you can take parochial insular xenophobia before it becomes decidedly unfunny. It even includes stock character locals and this student team can add little to those flimsy characters but add a funny west country voice and a walking stick. They are not brilliantly cast for their respective roles which really doesn’t help.

My overriding issue with this play is not necessarily anything to do with performance or staging but a terrible script. There are one or two decent performances here but none of them funny where the writer intended them to be. It’s the sort of play which only the very least self aware amdram company would stage.

This sounds like a very negative review of the day here but I took a punt on these and that’s part of the charm of the Edinburgh Fringe. There are occasional gems such as Chasing Comets amongst a varying standard of other shows. It’s kind of like an addiction where infrequent wins make the rest of it all worthwhile.

Check out the Edinburgh Fringe Website for details of all these shows.

Writer- Karl Barnsley

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Diary of Edinburgh Fringe- Day One (Wednesday)

I’m keeping a diary of my trip up to Edinburgh this year. I usually see a fair few plays when I come up but it sometimes becomes challenge to keep up if I write about all of them. It takes a long time and a lot of effort for me to find a way to start writing the first few paragraphs. When seeing multiple shows in a day, it becomes easier to write summaries of the day rather than individual reviews for each show seen. So that’s what I’m going to do, and this is the first daily summary. I’m here until Sunday.

This approach has the added bonus that if a show doesn’t offer much for me to talk about then I can get away with saying less about that one and say more about the ones I have more to say on. I’m so clever to think of this!

This new approach however is immediately tested by the fact that Wednesday was my first day here, I arrived mid afternoon with an overdue review from Keswick which needed writing and a need to check into my digs at some point early enough not to piss of my Airbnb hosts. I don’t want to leave that part until 11.45pm like I did a few years ago. With these factors restraining my natural impulses to throw myself straight in the thick of the Fringe action my first show of the festival is my only one of Wednesday.

Just Like a Woman is the latest work by Rob Johnstone of Breath Out Theatre. This group are becoming regulars at the Fringe with a few past Edinburgh Fringe collaborations between writer Johnstone and actors Katherine Godfrey (An Extraordinary Light) and Emma Romy-Jones (Dark Satanic). They’re back this year with an absurdist piece tackling a range of feminist topics including, amongst many things the role of language in maintaining a patriarchy. That’s a theme Rash Dash have touched upon in some of their work but with these ideas coming from a male writer this is a bold yet interesting development.

The writing is excellent. It’s insightful and intelligent which deal with some quite difficult themes and issues. There are liberal dashes of humour spread throughout, though I know from past work in the Surgeons Hall Theatre Two it can sometimes be difficult for the performers to receive that feedback when onstage. Audiences here don’t tend to laugh out loud, it’s a quirk of Fringe audiences I think but it never spoils their enjoyment.

There’s a pretty much bare stage with a phone on a stand and a lectern with a laptop on it. I really think they could do with more though despite the practicalities of touring set in the backs of cars. The actors occasionally looked ill at ease on the wide, shallow stage but otherwise empty. A busier stage layout may have provided a better flow of movement around the stage. The ethos here is to allow the writing to do the talking and to a great extent that works, but more consideration to staging aspects would support that ethos further.

Structurally there are some great points to the writing. It shifts between realism to storytelling and mixes the two cleverly. There are some storytelling monologues which hook you in through the strong performances, particularly from Romy-Jones to bring the best out of what is written for them.

It’s safe to say that Just Like A Woman is a fine start for my Edinburgh Fringe this year. Weather hasn’t been shit so far, not wet and not too hot. More to see Thursday as there are three shows planned plus any others I may get to. Obviously if any companies want to invite me to their shows and review them in this daily digest then get in touch.

Just Like A Woman is on until Saturday at Surgeons Hall

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Guards at the Taj

As last minute decisions go, my decision to head up to Keswick at the weekend to see their latest show in their summer rep season stands as one of my good ones. For me it’s a two hour drive up the M6 and most people go to the Lakes to climb up mountains or whatever but on this occasion for me it’s Theatre. Recently I’ve been going up there to experience their Theatre by the Lake and it’s just as fun as Helvelyn. I find it refreshing to visit a Theatre firmly focussed on producing great Theatre in house without any political expectations thrust upon them unlike so much Northern Theatre right now. Artistic Director Liz Stevenson has put together an engaging and entertaining season of Theatre and I desperately want to see the rest.

It’s opening night for Guards at the Taj, a dark comedy written by US based playwright Rajiv Joseph and it was first produced in New York in 2015. Since then it’s been produced at the Bush Theatre in London. Now, the Theatre by the Lake have put it in their rep season directed by Kash Arshad.

Guards at the Taj centres around two pals who are junior members of the Imperial guard of the Emperor of India. One of the pair Babur played by Luke Murphy seems a bit of a liability so much so that despite Humayun’s attempts to cover for him and his family connections, they get given the shit jobs. It goes beyond this premise though, far beyond and far deeper, exploring the nature of beauty and questions whether beauty is a thing that can be killed. It’s a fine question and despite occasional mild verbosity is driven home by excellent writing in the dialogue and the philosophies expressed.

All of this is made complete by beautiful craftsmanship from the actors Murphy and Devesh Kishore and creative team headed up by Arshad. There’s a touch of the “Pinteresque” to this play and although I say that about an awful lot of the plays I like, I think it’s right to say it, particularly in this case. There are some fabulous moments of stillness and silence in which you begin to form your own stories using your own imagination. When the silence is broken the play moves, beautifully paced and structured and intelligently nurtured by Arshad to bring out the best in Josephs text.

This play isn’t for the faint hearted I should warn, there’s literally bucket loads of blood and though most of the maiming happens before scenes open it’s still a visceral depiction of the lot of junior members of an imperial guard forced to do the shit jobs.

At a rough estimate Guards at the Taj runs about an hour and a half in length with no interval. There are, unfortunately, a couple of lengthy scene changes which run on a little too long for comfort and a little too short to be classed as an interval. There seems to be bugger all that can be done about this as the actors need that time to clean off the blood they’ve immersed themselves in. It’s the price we pay for gore!

This is a well crafted play. It is a great piece of writing superbly executed by a fine pair of actors and a great creative team. There’s passion there, which is infectious and worthy of high praise.

Reviewed on Saturday 10th August 2019

For Dates, times and tickets please check out the Theatre by the Lake Website

This review was originally written for Number 9 Reviews and is accessible here

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The Rise and Fall of Little Voice

I’ve always felt that the best theatrical experiences never actually begin when the houselights go down, but begin sometime before, perhaps when you enter the Theatre, sometimes in the car on the way. Enter Theatres in any city in the UK and you should be entertained for an evening from
curtain up to curtain down. If, however you decide to visit a small theatre on the edge of Derwent Water amongst the lakes and mountains of Cumbria for example, you may find an entirely unique experience which the biggest London Theatres can never hope to replicate. It’s the setting of the
Theatre which counts as much as the setting of the play.

I made a full day of it, travelling up to Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake via Windermere, Ambleside and Dunmail Raise taking in the sites of the Lakes on a proper north of England road trip. That’s part of the experience you see and an important part of this Theatre’s selling point. It sets your frame of mind before you even set foot inside and that’s vital for enjoying Theatre.
The play I came to see is The Rise and Fall of Little Voice by Jim Cartwright, part of The Theatre by the Lake’s summer rep season and the first season under the Artistic Directorship of Liz Stevenson.

It’s undoubtedly a fantastic play to start with and it is executed superbly. The original National Theatre production directed by Sam Mendes had Jane Horrocks in the lead role as shy and reserved Little Voice. This production has Zoe Waterman as director with her Little Voice played by the Georgina Ambrey who does an outstanding job in breaking the role away from what was originally written for Horrocks and making the role her own the role her own.

We’re treated to an enchanting, powerful and whirlwind performance evoking the spirits of Marilyn Monroe, Edith Piaf and Judy Garland, demonstrating a vocal talent and energy to be marvelled. This high calibre
vocal performance from the lead sets the standard which the rest of the production rises to meet.


Ambrey is backed up by first class performances from the rest of the cast, all of whom are enjoying a feast of humour and terrifically dark moments which the text provides. Naturally, this enjoyment gets transferred to a responsive audience who lap it up. It’s a highly capable creative team at work here with some very strong directing from Zoe Waterman bringing the best out of a strong group of actors and text which speaks for itself. The real skill is that it is strong direction yet never overpowering. It’s the best kind of Theatre when excellent writing is done justice by great performances from actors and director. On top of this, there are some interesting technical and design solutions which support the story as it builds into the final scenes where, almost literally, Little Voice begins to soar amongst the stars in a beautiful finale to the play.


There are few weak links in this production and strong solutions to the technical challenges this play present take this production from merely highly competent to something which excites you, leaving you with one massive high at the end of it. There’s no higher complement I can give a play really.

Reviewed on Saturday 8th June 2019

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Romeo and Juliet

There’s a quality of endurance to a great many classic texts throughout dramatic history, which is not brought about by sheer luck or co-incidence, nor particularly by an unwavering series of fantastic productions. Instead, the capture of a vitally engaging story told with powerful use of language are instead the elements I believe establish a play as a classic. The RSC’s current touring production of Romeo and Juliet proves these points of my theory.


We begin with text. It’s Romeo and Juliet so I assume you know the story. It’s a tale of 16 year old boy meets 13 year old girl (think Lolita without the controversy) and they fall in love and even get married, despite their feuding families, whose main objection is that the families historically hate each other rather than the potential grooming charges that might be levelled. Like I say it’s a captivating story and the writing is undoubtedly beautiful and memorable. It is Shakespeare after all. These words have the potential to pack a powerfully emotive punch on an audience provided they are approached with sensitivity. Unfortunately, in this production the writing is let down by the casts failure to connect with the text. To tell a love story well there needs to be a nuance in the pacing but that was not evident here. The actors (all of them) rushed their lines faster than Spuds job interview in Trainspotting and the end result was a total lack of textual clarity with no discernible benefit to this approach. From that point on it’s an uphill struggle to engage with this production.


There are other aspects of disappointment in this production but for the moment, let’s focus on the things that worked well because I don’t like to be a pessimist. The set design is one that can be highlighted for this purpose. Fairly modest and in typical RSC style of high box walls and some kind of square features in the middle, in this instance a raised platform acting as Juliet’s bed, balcony and tomb served to facilitate one of the better ideas of the production in the Capulets assumptions of Juliet’s grief for Tybalt being repudiated by her and Romeo being seen in bed above. It’s a neat idea but like so many ideas in this production, simply not pursued.


Other ideas were felt to greatly forced, a prime example of this being Charlotte Josephine’s Mercutio, whose loud and brash portrayal grated to such an extent that it was a relief when she finally attempted one hip thrust too many onto the point of Tybalts sword. Again, Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech is one of those sections in the play that audiences pay to see but like so much of the rest of the approach to this text the understanding and execution is simply inadequate.


Though there’s never particularly a crisis point in terms of quality in this production, there never seemed to be any redeeming feature which could lend itself to being considered an achieved objective here. There was no clarity of themes and in Romeo and Juliet there are plenty to choose from. Wherever a theme or idea was touched upon it wasn’t followed up. This production was quite clearly a testing ground for ideas perhaps to be expanded upon in future RSC productions, but for its current audience it was underwhelming.

Viewed 26th February 2019- Originally reviewed for Number 9 Reviews and can be accessed here.

Blackpool Grand Theatre

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Narcissist in the Mirror- My Edinburgh Fringe Top Show

I was up at the Fringe for only a few days this year but crammed a decent amount of decent shows into the indecently short time I was there. Top of the decent list was an absolute gem which started out as a collection of poems, by creator Rosie Fleeshman, tried out at a few scratch nights in Manchester where the quality of writing and performance first caught my attention. Since then Narcissist in the Mirror has blossomed into what deserves to be one of the biggest hits at this years festival.

Written and performed by Fleeshman it’s drawn comparisons with Phoebe Waller Bridge’s hit show Fleabag which did an Edinburgh Fringe run before being adapted for television. Both are one woman shows about a millennial woman finding their way in the world. There, I argue, perhaps the similarities end as Fleeshman skilfully blends prose and poetry into an hour long show that beautifully plays with rhyme and rhythm to tell the often humorous story of her path through life juggling the struggles of being an emerging actor with relationships and adulting. It’s basically a dramatically heightened (hopefully) version of herself and is funny, sexy but most of all excitingly clever.

There’s a lot of good stuff to talk about with this play, it confidently wears the talent inherent within both the writing and performance and regularly lampoons Fleeshman’s life in often very personal ways. A lot of the material seems to have been wrought from a very deep place within her soul, sometimes with humour and occasionally not. Nevertheless, it becomes an intense self reflection, again parodied by the references to seeking therapy from the portrait on the wall of the dressing room where the show is set.

It’s a classic theatre dressing room complete with chaise longue, perfect for the narcissist to indulge themselves in various ways. Pretty straightforward, yet well thought out, the functional set offers no distraction from the most important things in this production. I would have liked to have seen greater consideration to the lighting design employing more subtlety with the transitions between prose and verse that were employed pretty unnecessary. It’s a minor issue which could be ironed out along the way but it’s the only real point of criticism I have so it must go in otherwise I’d look a little bit sycophantic about the work.

A phrase I’m rather fond of and some may have heard me use it before is “great writing excites me and makes life worth living.” (Harold Pinter). This writing is extraordinary and rare. It is exciting, it’s also funny and engaging and deserves attention. It’s also easy to forget that this is Fleeshman’s debut play as a writer. She’s started as she means to go on and I can’t wait to see what’s next.

 Narcissist in the Mirror is playing throughout the Edinburgh Fringe- 3.15pm at the Pleasance Courtyard  every day

 

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The Crucible by Arthur Miller- The Storyhouse at Chester

A theatre experience does not begin when the house lights go down. One could argue that the house lights need not necessarily go down in any case but for the purposes of this review that’s a totally irrelevant point. I argue that the Theatrical experience member for an audience member begins at least on the street outside. I mention this because it’s my first time at the Storyhouse in Chester and that the element of excitement of checking out a new venue imparts a particular edge onto the actual production I’ve come to review.

Walking towards the entrance my first thought was “crikey, this place is big!” On entering the Storyhouse my next thought was “crikey, this place is big!” Substitute whatever words your imagination allows in place of crikey. I then saw books (which are lendable) and a decent sized tapas restaurant/bar/coffee shop before you even get near the Theatre space. It was all pretty busy too although of course you might expect this on press night for Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

The Crucible, first performed in New York in 1953 is a tale of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 with modern day (at the very least to a fifties audience) parallels which reflect the paranoia of the McCarthy era and the tactics used by the Senate Committee on Un-American Activities to root out communist sympathies within American society. These are tactics which are echoed by Deputy Governor Danforth in the play. Miller himself was called before the committee and by refusing to name his known liberal associates risked being found in contempt of the committee and therefore Congress. It’s this parallel with Millers own gallant experience with authority which leads to John Procter being led to the gallows after pleading to restore his name. This similar theme of maintaining a mans good name runs throughout Millers other work too including Eddie in a View From a Bridge where an identical plea is made. It’s beautiful writing and delivered with heart and truthfulness by Matthew Flynn playing Procter, making one sit up and listen. It’s truly fine acting from Flynn.

From the ensemble, one sees a performance style which lends a distinctly Shakespearean tone to the language of the play and is an impressive artistic direction taken by the company. This results in some remarkable performances by several of the lead actors.

Set in thrust with a range of door options in a wall under the proscenium it isn’t a complicated set but well thought out even if the blocking doesn’t quite compliment as well as it might do. There’s money been put into this production and a fine balance has been found between design and company. Remarkably you can hardly realise it’s part of a rep season. It allows the writing and performance to take its place as a focal point for the production and this is one of several fine decisions for this play. The challenges of casting and designing for a rep season have been met well.

One regrettable decision was the use of regional accents. Here, a cliché is maintained that the “uneducated” small folk sport regional northern accents whilst the educated and powerful maintain neutral or more prestigious accents which re-enforces an unfortunate myth which must be objected to. Perhaps one day a production of the Crucible can be done in authentic Massachusetts accents. One can dream…

Seen-19th June 2018

 

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