FRANCES RUFFELLE: BENEATH THE DRESS
PLEASANCE AT GHILLIE DHU (VENUE 236)
THE house lights are dimmed. The expectant audience gazes at the stage. A pure, magical voice emerges from one side of the room.
Frances Ruffelle is starting as she means to go on.
For this is a show of surprises. Ruffelle made her name in musical theatre, including turns as a heartbreaking Eponine in Les Miserables – for which she won a Tony on Broadway – and Roxie Hart in Chicago. But while there are some standards sung traditionally in Beneath the Dress, most of the show – nay, event! – comprises classic songs reinterpreted in quirky ways.
Torch song Ten Cents a Dance is intensified to inferno level, the mournful Alabama Song gets an eerie, seductive spin and What Now My Love is just delightful. A couple of songs are connected to lovely, unpredictable moments, so I shan’t name them. I will say that Ruffelle’s beautiful rendition of If You Go Away has haunted me since the show, in a wonderful way, and Long John Blues provided a hilariously liberating few minutes.
Tunes of more recent vintage include I Slept With Someone (Kurt Cobain’s Intervention), and Tom Waits’ Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis, both given a theatrical makeover that explains why this cabaret isn’t in the Music section of the Fringe Guide. For Ruffelle doesn’t just use the space, she crushes it under her high heels, racing around the Hogwartsian new venue that is Ghillie Dhu with the energy of someone who really loves life. Here she’s pulling a member of the audience up for a dance, there she’s climbed an organ (er, separate incident), everywhere she’s darting, like a sprite with the voice of a siren.
But Ruffelle doesn’t concentrate on the men, she enchants everyone with an innate charisma multiplied by years of hard slog in the entertainment industry. Talk about paying her dues, this woman has represented the UK at Eurovision. As well as living the songs, Ruffelle proves something of a quick-change artist, changing her look throughout the show, but always looking a million centime. Her extraordinary six-piece band, conversely, wear pyjamas throughout. No idea why, but it worked for me.
Ruffelle came to fame playing a French orphan. With this show, she owns Edinburgh.
JENNIFER COOLIDGE – YOURS FOR THE NIGHT
ASSEMBLY @ ASSEMBLY ROOMS (VENUE 3)
SHE’S appeared in American Pie, Legally Blonde, Joey, Best in Show and now here’s Jennifer Coolidge in the Assembly’s Wildman Room. Talk about a great surprise – I was expecting the Hollywood star to be in one of the big halls, but here she was, close enough to make eye contact with her audience.
Or maybe that should be church. It was obvious everyone there was a fan, but after an hour of candid tales of life as a non-skinny, decidedly non-ingenue character actress, there were more than a few acolytes. It helps that Coolidge has the body of a Greek goddess – she’s statuesque, voluptuous and has the face of an angel.
And the mouth of an alley cat. Coolidge is no shrinking violet, she knows exactly how people see her in the Hollywood talent pool. She’s a good enough actress to attack any type of role, but her turn as Stifler’s Mom in American Pie led many to file her under brassy blonde MILF. But she’s not in Edinburgh to give her Lady Macbeth, she’s here to make us laugh.
And laugh we did, at tales of how she lost out to Renee Zellweger for the role of Bridget Jones, her theory as to why Penelope Cruz can keep A-list Hollywood boyfriends for so long, where Brokeback Mountain went wrong, and much, much more. She even reenacts her big scene from Sophie’s Choice, with a live Danish pastry. And all the stories of LA’s movers and shakers come with dead-on impersonations.
Coolidge is in Edinburgh as part of a project to ‘Get the **** out of America’ and as a newly single woman, maybe even meet a new man. Well, she’s in Edinburgh and in her prime (hmm, I can think of a role ripe for reinterpretation). Meanwhile, she’s recently started out on the comedy circuit and rather than ‘straight’ stand-up is, as the show’s title implies, sticking to personal observations and revelations. Her delivery is dry and dead-on – when she aims that whip-smart mind and vicious tongue at something, it’s toast.
Despite the stunning looks, Coolidge isn’t vain; she constantly tells stories against herself, not in a ‘poor me’ way but in ‘what the hell?’ mode. Despite the blousy public persona, there’s a vulnerability and humility to the woman – she was genuinely touched by the warmth of her reception. Jennifer Coolidge deserves it.
MARC SALEM’S MIND GAMES
ASSEMBLY @ PRINCES STREET GARDENS (VENUE 52)
LAST time Marc Salem was at the Fringe we’d never heard of Derren Brown. While the brilliant Brown has captured the wider public’s imagination, when it comes to dazzling with stage ‘mindreading’, Salem remains at the top of his game.
He can tell audience members where they’ve been recently, how they felt about the trip, what went wrong or right. He can predict every detail in a spy story devised by a series of strangers. He can tell you the random three-figure number a friend of a punter, miles away, is going to think of.
It seems like magic, but Salem claims no powers. As a trained psychologist – like TV’s Mentalist he’s a consultant with American law enforcement agencies – he’s using decades of familiarity with body language, verbal and non verbal tells, to read people, maybe even feed us unconscious cues so we come up with the information he’s written down in advance. There’s likely a bit of misdirection to boot.
He’s even more impressive when he hobbles himself, taping 50p pieces to his eyes, donning a blindfold and turning his back before identifying items offered up by audience members. Some of the moments are truly astonishing, and made all the more entertaining by Salem’s warm wit.
Whatever is going on in this thoroughly entertaining hour, Salem’s tricks are more impressive than ‘actual’ magic – they take a lot more skill.
MORGAN & WEST: TIME TRAVELLING MAGICIANS
GILDED BALLOON TEVIOT (VENUE 14)
NOW here are two charming chaps, Victorian prestidigitators Rhys Morgan and Robert West who – we’re told at the top of the show – have travelled to the year 2000 to dazzle with their magical prowess.
Except that they’ve overshot the mark somewhat. Not to worry, they may have left their intended audience in the Millennium dust, but they found an appreciative one at this year’s Fringe. A packed house gasped and giggled as our hirsute hosts offer tricks big and small, from dozens of needles threaded inside Mr Morgan’s mouth to signed playing cards apparently teleporting from one deck to another across the stage, to the finale, a perplexing panoply of predictions pertaining to the pages of Harry Potter.
As one of the punters invited onstage to bear witness to a trick – the aforementioned card swap – I have to say that the moment was utterly convincing … I can’t recall the last time my awe was so thoroughly struck.
In between the big tricks came more modest moments, linked by the instruction manual from time machine manufacturer Tempus Fugit and some terrifically assured patter. One or two of the smaller illusions were just a tad too small – close-up magic on stage is always a risk – but overall this production is a great success. If you’ve yet to see a magic show this year, give Morgan & West a try, while there’s still time.
WENDY WASON IN ‘OTHER PEOPLE’S SECRETS’
GILDED BALLOON TEVIOT (VENUE 14)
SECRETS, everybody has them. Wendy Wason has one or two of her own, and doesn’t shy from sharing them in this endearing 50 minutes. We also hear the hidden shames of her relatives, friends, talented stars and Cheryl Cole.
Wason’s biggest shame involves a furtive trip to Paris to see some football match, which was uncovered in a pretty funny way. The audience is even invited to pipe up with any of their own.
This proved the least successful moment in Edinburgh native Wason’s show, with punters at the performance I saw perturbed by the idea of yelling out their embarrassment without the benefit of strong drink. Other houses have apparently been more forthcoming, but it’s a hit and miss format. A good idea might be to have Teviot staff collect anonymous secrets from us while we’re waiting in line.
Not to worry, Wason had us in the palm of he hand with her chatterbox ways – she’s constantly going off at tangents, but they’re inevitably entertaining and she always gets back on track. If her set ever becomes as sharp as her personality, Wason will be a surefire winner. Meanwhle, she’s definitely one to watch.
ASSEMBLY @ ASSEMBLY HALL (VENUE 35)
BY THE time you’ve been kept waiting in the rain, shushed down corridors and near-frogmarched into seats in the searingly hot hall by the Assembly staff, you’re needing a laugh.
Happily, Carl Barron has brought plenty from Australia, with some very sharp observational comedy. It’s all firmly rooted in Barron’s own view of the world, which I’d characterise as ‘perplexed’. He’s puzzled by the things people say, bemused by the things they do … he’s even weirded out by how happy a wee twirl on his heels make him. Growing up, there’s the things his parents said, as opposed to what they meant; the weird kid in class; the nuns …. it’s all familiar areas for humour, but not all comics can put it across as well as Barron. He even finds comedy in flip flops (which, in passing, he admitted wearing with socks; the Assembly audience was far too polite to snicker).
Barron is as dry as Australia’s deserts, putting well-tested material across with the skill that’s seen him win numerous awards. He’s even funnier when he goes off script, ordering one girl to the proper exit as she galumphed down the stairs in search of a toilet, and teasing her pals as they called her the ‘most loveliest, most beautifulled gir-rul ever’. He wasn’t being mean, just allowing the punters to enter more directly into his comedy world.
And he does a stonkingly good French accent as he describes a trip to Paris. He also points out why being a comic gets you nowhere with airport authorities… The hour passes quickly, with Barron demonstrating that he’s as good at physical comedy as he is at verbal.
This is Barron’s first visit to the Fringe – let’s hope it’s not his last.
FELICITY WARD READS FROM THE BOOK OF MORON
GILDED BALLOON (VENUE 14)
COMING on stage looking like a cross between Joyce Grenfell and Katharine Hepburn, all aristocratic features, pipe and tweed trews, Felicity Ward quickly won me over. Convincing an audience she’s the most self-deprecating woman in the world, while addressing us with huge confidence isn’t easy; but the Australian managed it with her latest Fringe show.
I nearly wrote ‘event’ – that’s what it felt like as Ward made us feel like we were in her private gang, and privileged to hear the close-to-the-bone stories she’d brought. While her show last year was character comedy, the only character Ward was taking the mickey out of this time was herself. She’s the moron of the show’s title.
It’s heard to agree, as with everything she said, every move she made on a stage full of deliberately rubbish props, Ward’s brilliance shone through. But that didn’t stop me relishing the stories, which covered such areas as being a rubbish turn at a Bar Mitzvah and failing to have a decent coping mechanism for IBS.
There was very little ‘reading’ from the embossed – and blank – Book, just the first few lines of the story. Then Ward would wander the stage, narrating her mini comic-dramas, interrupting herself constantly to pass on another embarrassing tale, or to engage with the audience.
This is one of the funniest shows I’ve seen this year, by one of the freshest comic minds around. If Ward is a moron, would someone please lower my IQ?
TIME VINE – THE JOKE-AMOTIVE
PLEASANCE COURTYARD (VENUE 33)
ONCE a-pun a time, Tim Vine had Edinburgh audiences gagging with a show made up entirely of wordplay. He’s back again, to show just how many jokes you can pack into an hour. While there’s still plenty of cracking, cringe-making bits of punnery, this show also has plenty of more random material – daft songs, random one-liners, an astoundingly good mini opera centred on a whining carpet square …
Vine looks the business in a stationmaster’s jacket, opening with a few railway puns and never letting up. The audience barely has a chance to catch its breath before each new joke comes along. For maximum laughs, never ask a neighbour if you miss a joke; you’re only going to lose out on the next three. You have to get the rhythm of the Joke-amotive, which takes some training.
And there’s no let-up on the quickfire gags when Vine riffs off the audience – he’s on stage, enjoying himself hugely and he couldn’t misplace his mojo if he tried. If you like smart humour that’s both big and silly, a Vine time is guranteed.
Many of the comic contrivances centred on Vine’s wacky box of props, only one of which he hasn’t thought of a gag for yet, a massive piece of bacon. And there I thought he was a big old ham …