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A CurtainUp Report

2008 Edinburgh Fringe Festival

by Ollie Hester

August 12, 2008
Click on Show Title Below, or Scroll Down Page to Browse

Borough Market | Ecstacy | On the Waterfront | The Real Inspector Hound | Reception | Sammy J in the Forest of Dreams |Shakespeare’s R and J |Stoning Mary | The Boy from Centreville | Deep Cut | The Laramie Project | Pornography | The Self-Murder | Simon Callow – A Festival Dickens | Stolen Secrets | Surviving Spike |

The 62nd Edinburgh Fringe Festival runs from August 3 - 25, 2008. Fringe 2008 features 31,320 performances of 2,088 shows in 247 venues. I will report on a healthy dose of this year's offerings in the reviews below.

Many visitors to the festival select their shows on a day-by-day basis from the Fringe programme or as a result of being given a flyer. We recommend that readers consider pre-booking their tickets for popular shows they don't want to miss. Further information, schedules and reservations are available by phoning 0131 226 0000 (9am-9pm daily during the festival period); on the web at: or in person at The Times Fringe Box Office, 180 High Street, or E-Ticket Tent, Prince's Mall (both open from 10am-9pm daily for the duration of the festival). —Ollie Hester


Borough Market. Breaking Butterflies Pleasance Dome (Venue 23)
At first glance, you would be forgiven for thinking from the title of this play that the setting is the area near Southwark in London. In fact, its based in Edinburgh – the Edinburgh crack-dealer Knowles so eloquently describes as "a f**king labyrinth of class, culture and coke." The plot revolves around Edin, a medical student in Edinburgh and Tennyson. Tennyson is a coke addict and eternal drifter with whom Edin falls in love with. It is only when Edin starts to sell drugs provided to him by Knowles that it all begins to fall apart. The drugs are sold to a girl who subsequently dies from an overdose and suddenly Knowles starts to blame Edin. This, of course, has implications for Tennyson as he can no longer take a little for himself and this threatens to tear the pair’s relationship apart. This play has a brilliant concept in that each scene is interspersed with a glimpse into the future coupled with a few lines of Shakespearean verse/ Luke Norris’ writes with beautiful simplicity. A basic set and sparse lighting give the piece a bareness which helps in moments of high tension. Whilst all these factors are important in performance it is primarily the actors and direction which define the piece and in this case both are poor. Knowles (Chris Starkie) often has issues with diction and not enough is made of several metaphors in the script. This is a case of the key players and direction letting down a play with great potential.

Ecstacy. Easy Tiger Productions Underbelly’s Baby Belly (Venue 88) Irvine Welsh’s loud, brash and downright rude portrayal of Edinburgh’s drug-fuelled party scene makes a transition to the stage. 31-year-old Lloyd from Leith spends his weeks locked away in his flat making vats of nutritious soup in preparation for his drug-induced weekends. Heather, 27, is a goody-two-shoes, depressed with her relationship and hasn’t had an orgasm in four years. Thanks to the encouragement from her slutty friend ("Poisonous c***") Veronica, Heather leaves her dull boyfriend, lets her hair down and falls for Lloyd. The sincerity with which Jack McGowan approaches the role of Lloyd carries the show well. In contrast, however, the medley of characters he encounters—complete with ridiculous wigs, over-the-top costumes and dodgy accents—seem nothing more than caricatures. Philip Jones’s lighting design is disappointingly basic given the potential for transforming the Baby Belly caves into heady club scenes, but music is integrated nicely, if not originally. The club-come-kitchen set is stylishly achieved through simple monochrome frames and there’s plenty of lewd and crude humour to make you smile, but the production as a whole lacks the intensity required by its subject matter.

On the Waterfront. Michael Edwards & Carol Winter and East Productions with Nottingham Playhouse Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33) Stephen Berkoff’s new adaptation of the 1954 film has managed to remain true to the original whilst incorporating Berkoff’s own physical theatre style, including a particularly humourous pigeon coop scene. Simon Merrell does a wonderful job matching up to Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy without trying to impersonate and recognition must go to Mark Glentworth’s wonderful score. The atmospheric lighting evokes the grime of the New York docks so well that you forget that there is no set. Vincenzo Nicoli’s Father Barry is exceptional and the choral cast members terrific. The climax of the production is that immortal line: "I coulda been a contender" This certainly could be a contender to outshine the original classic.

The Real Inspector Hound. Cambridge University ADC C (Venue 34) Tom Stoppard’s outstanding production is performed here by a very talented group of amateur performers from Cambridge University. I put the emphasis here on amateurs for whilst they do exploit their astute sense of comic timing, the acting is hammed up from the very outset — leaving the play-within-a-play with nothing to build on. There are some stand-out performances from Daisy Belfield and James Arthur Sharpe (Cynthia and Simon, respectively), with both exploiting their height difference in their romantic exchanges to great comic effect and Robyn Hoedemaker plays Mrs Drudge flawlessly. The first Inspector Hound could do with being a little less aggressive and some important laughs were missed but altogether this is a very polished performance from a slicker-than-average amateur drama club.

Reception. Avalon Promotions Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33) Reception will appeal to anyone who has ever worked in an office situation where the visit to the toilet is the highlight of your day. Essentially a selection of character comedy, sketches, monologues and banter between the shows two stars Jen and Clare (they didn’t bother changing their names), it is cleverly woven into a witty narrative which revels in its unbelievablity. Both actresses relish the opportunity to improvise around the script and rightly so — the audience love it when things go wrong as much as they do. There are creases and cracks in some areas of the show but I can envisage these being ironed out through the course of the run. The production may be wobbly in places but the pair’s ambition is high. Expect to see more from this rising duo in the future.

Sammy J in the Forest of Dreams. Sammy J and Heath McIvor Underbelly (Venue 61) Ok, so if I were to describe this as a musical with puppets which is rude, crass and gloriously camp, you would probably assume it was a cheap rip-off of Avenue Q. But it’s not. It’s much better than that. From the opening song "F**k you Disney" through to the magnificent "Revolution" each and every member of the audience was captivated like a child — only the language is not for children. The basic plot is that Sammy J, fed up with life and stuck in a rut, enters a magic portal in his kitchen and lands in the Forest of Dreams. From there he embarks on a mission to revolutionise the world he has entered and bed Yoplait, a small, attractive female. Yes, Yoplait is a puppet. He encounters several threats on the way, including an evil king and a sexually harassed squirrel but the laughs just keep on coming. With laugh-out-loud brash humour and wonderfully cheesy songs, you’ll go home wishing you had a magic portal in your kitchen where you too could fall in love with an inanimate object whilst simultaneously saving the world.

Shakespeare’s R and J. This Bridge Theatre Company C cubed (venue 50) This 1997 gem has four preppy all-American schoolboys (me thinks they are probably a little older than that) act out their version of Romeo and Juliet after class, challenging the very nature of masculinity. This provides for some interesting moments as the four play all the characters using very limited props, sparse lighting and no additional costume, apart from their school uniforms. The performance I saw unfortunately was attended by a row of giggly schoolgirls who clearly found the all male cast unusual. Perhaps it is worth remembering this is how it was performed in Shakespeare’s day. Impressive acting and alienation tenchniques abound. This is a charming, dramatic and testosterone-fuelled treasure. Hurry up and see it before it ends its run on the 15th.

Stoning Mary. New Cambridge Theatre Company Underbelly (Venue 61) Debbie Tucker-Green’s challenging, thought-provoking play is given a fair performance here by New Cambridge Theatre Company although feels at times as though it is overdoing the symbolism a bit. All the actors give wonderful performances and the use of a television set to display scene titles is a nice addition. The plot begins as a series of seemingly unconnected scenes, which gradually link together — a simple enough plot device and by halfway through the audience has already realised where it is leading. The ending comes more as a welcome relief than a shocking or meaningful endnote.

The Boy from Centreville Central School of Speech and Drama Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33) This performance by students from Central was devised in collaboration with Complicite and is a response to the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech University. As is customary with Complicite productions, this piece makes use of audio visual elements in performance but these can often detract from the verbatim nature of the piece and frequently jar with the actions of those performing. This may, indeed, be precisely the feel the students are wishing to create but a glance at the synopsis confirms my suspicions of pretentiousness: "What is the point of theatre anyway?" Many members of the company do offer some gravitas to the piece and provide some stimulating thoughts and ideas, they are, however, let down by others who struggle to grasp the correct, or even any form of, American accent – this should surely be a pre-requisite when trying to portray these events. Whilst there are some interesting ideas here, this does still feel like a work in progress, leaving one feeling that this ambitious piece tries too hard to explore all the avenues it has created for itself.

Deep Cut Sherman Cymru Traverse Theatre (Venue 15) Deep Cut is one of the many verbatim theatre pieces on offer at this year’s fringe and is suited perfectly to the style. The piece explores the true story of the tragic deaths of Cheryl James and other soldiers at Deepcut Barracks between 1995 and 2002, all of whom died from gunshot wounds. This provocative play shatters any idealistic dreams and trust we may have in today’s justice system by systematically disproving claims and deconstructing the “official enquiries” into the deaths. The story is told by the characters of Cheryl’s parents, Des and Doreen – played with delicate gravitas by Ciaran McIntyre and Rhian Morgan, a fellow soldier (Rhian Blythe), Nicholas Blake QC (Simon Molloy), forensic expert Frank Swann (Robert Blythe) and an investigative journalist (Brian Cathcart). All of these characters traipse through the cosy set of the James’ living room, offering their take and views on the story and explain how the efforts of Cheryl’s parents to seek the truth have been hindered at every stage in the process, be it by the MoD, the army, the government or the local police force. Credit must go to Mick Gordon for his stunning direction of Philip Ralph's emotive script. This is crucial viewing that epitomises the fringe - challenging stuff that certainly makes an impact.

Krapp's Last Tape by Samuel Beckett Richard Jordan Productions Assembly @ George Street (Venue 3) Peter Dineen gives a faithful performance of Beckett’s most poetic work here, making marvelous use of silence, in true Beckettian fashion. For those unaware, the play is a one-man, one-act performance in which the audience is invited to watch what at first glance would be a bumbling old man. As the play goes on we are meticulously played various cassette tapes of Krapp narrating a variety of life experiences he has had whilst Krapp carries out acts of varying obsessive compulsiveness.Dineen takes care to extract the humour of the piece without relying on it and his extensive previous acting credits can only add to this masterful portrayal of Krapp. Plaudits must be given to the highly atmospheric set and lighting, successfully adding to the tone of the piece without being the main focus. The audience were held captivated for the duration, with a highly deserved three curtain calls.

The Laramie Project The American High School Theatre Festival Church Hill Theatre (Venue 137)Patapasco High School bring a much over-done play to the Edinburgh Fringe with a surprising degree of professionalism and manage to give the audience a new take on this popular piece of theatre. The story concerns the brutal attack on and subsequent death of a young gay University of Wyoming student, provoking the audience to consider their moral values through hearing the accounts of various people who knew (or more often than not, knew of) him. The young performers carry an impressive degree of stage presence and give this so often dated feeling play a fresh vibrancy.

Pornography Traverse Theatre Company & Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company Traverse Theatre (Venue 15) London is the main character in this play, although not as we know it. There are no lavish sets (in fact, it feels as though we are backstage) and lighting is stark and minimal. The atmosphere created is that of a hellish pit, in which we are about to view scenes we all know so well from that month of July 2005. The city above creaks and hums, anticipating a climatic crescendo. Over the next hour and a half memories of Live 8, the 2012 Olympic bid win and the 7/7 bombings are all recalled before us, and by people just like us. Both pairs and single people recount various monologues in a seemingly random fashion either to us or to each other. For the majority of the play, the characters are blind to each other but remain locked into carefully choreographed movements that become more and more apparent as the play goes on. Amongst these characters are a schoolboy, an academic, a brother and sister, a woman having a quiet breakdown and the ghostly character of the bomber himself. All of these characters random, unconnected life events eventually come together in the most subtle and yet expertly crafted of ways. The text itself says that the play can be performed in any order and the beautiful simplicity of this piece is that, just like our lives, whatever direction is given, the intangible links between us all will always come together. The best show on the fringe this year.

The Self-Murder SSSR Production clubWEST @ Quincentenary Hall, The Royal College of Surgeons (Venue 112) Julia and August are two “suiciders” from Russia who meet after a conversation in an internet chatroom, both of whom are going to end their lives. For the next hour we witness their last moments together on the day of their agreed suicides in a remote area of Norway. This is interspersed with video and piano interludes and, surprise, surprise, they decide not to do it after all. Far from provoking the debate it wishes to, this piece feels predictable and is in completely the wrong space. It is hard to feel connected to a performer when a piece is as lifeless as this, but when performed in a white box of a room, this only serves to enhance to feeling of disconnection. I had such high hopes for this piece, being performed as part of the invAsian Festival on the fringe, but sadly was let down, making me want to commit suicide myself.

Simon Callow – A Festival Dickens Assembly @ George Street (Venue 3) Simon Callow this year returns with two more stories by Dickens, displaying the signature Dickens social commentary which Callow so clearly loves to perform. The first, Mr Chops, The Dwarf, focuses on “the characters of the circus and their captivating chatter” including Chops himself who tries to move up through the ranks of society having just won the lottery. The second story, meanwhile, focuses on the Dr. Marigold which the piece takes its name from. Dr Marigold is a travelling salesman whose wife and daughter die, leaving him to pick up the pieces. He adopts a deaf-mute daughter and watches her progress through life and eventually settle down finding a love of her own - leaving the audience to empathise with his bittersweet sentimentality. Halfway through the run of this double monologue, Callow is still unsure of which accent he is supposed to adopt for each character, frequently missing lines and constantly vamping for all he is worth to hide this fact. Several audience members around me were put out at the 50% overrun of the performance, particularly when it had lagged so much from the interval onwards.

Stolen Secrets Mulberry Theatre Company The Space@Venue 45 (Venue 45) An exceptionally well executed amalgamation of various urban secrets are given a beautifully crafted outing here by the Mulberry Theatre Company, a student theatre group from the Mulberry School for Girls in London’s East End. The anonymously given secrets were “stolen” from a box placed in the school hall which were then expanded upon through a series of workshop sessions with the group – consequently, the stories presented to us today should not be taken as literal interpretations of the original event. Fin Kennedy, Mulberry’s playwright-in-residence, has shaped these secrets into a touchingly witty rhyming verse interspersed with enough modern street slang to allow for a gritty honesty. For a group of amateurs, these young girls have a remarkable sense of stage professionalism yet retain enough youthful naivety to carry off a piece on a scale such as this. Credit must go to the stunningly simplistic set design by Kollodi and Ed Thomas’ fitting musical compositions. The tales, from behind the closed doors of a council estate, vary from a vicious tale of a girls inner murderous thoughts to that of another girls discovery that the quiet old lady on the estate is actually quite sane and ordinary. This has been one of my favourite discoveries at this year’s fringe.

Surviving Spike Bill Kenwright Productions Assembly @ George Street (Venue 3) Michael Barrymore and Jill Halfpenny star in this (quite obviously) pre-West End and UK tour try-out. This play, written by Richard Harris, is based on the biography of Spike Milligan, written by Norma Farnes - the PA, and later, manager to the comedian who suffered from what we would now know as bipolar disorder. As a result of his disorder, it was very difficult for Farnes to work with a man who was so often a kind, generous and inspirational workaholic but more frequently an angry, immature womaniser. Barrymore is able to bring his considerable life experience to the role with delicate effortlessness although you are sometimes left feeling that both he and the script focus too much on the nicer side of Milligan, regularly overlooking the comedians work to concentrate meticulously on the man. Halfpenny gives a just interpretation of Farnes and both Hywel Morgan and Elizabeth Price play all the other minor characters with skill and ease. The highlight of this show is Barrymore’s re-enactment of Milligan’s stand up routine, which left the audience in stitches. If you’d like to find out more about the man that was Milligan then this is a great production – just don’t go if you have barely heard of his work.
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