Edinburgh Fringe reviews 2010

Each August, every theatre, church hall and pub back room in Edinburgh is handed over to the Edinburgh Fringe, the world’s largest festival. High drama, comedy, musicals, opera, the dreaded devised shows … we’ve got it all. It’s all very Marmite, you either love it or you hate it – many locals flee the city and make a mint hiring out their homes to performers and crew. Me, I adore it.


For more information, see the official website – and maybe visit us next year:


http://www.edfringe.com/


Meanwhile, here’s what I’ve seen so far this year. With 2,453 shows, I’ve only about 2,427 to go. 

MUSICALS AND OPERA

REEL-TO-REAL
PLEASANCE COURTYARD (VENUE 33)
SINGING, dancing, gags, gorgeous girls, handsome chaps … it’s safe to say Reel-to-Real is an unashamed crowd-pleaser. The story of brother and sister twins racing around the world to win their father’s billions, its unique selling point is the way it merges on-stage action with classic film clips.

So when Jack (Jeremy Benton) starts ‘Singing in the Rain’, he’s inspired by Gene Kelly doing just that, and dances around a projection of the great man. As Jill (Ellen Zolezzi) learns that ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’, she sits with dancers dolled up a la the classic sequence in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. A South Seas maiden rides ‘atop’ a projected elephant. And so on.

It’s clever stuff, certainly, with the ten performers showing great chops in keeping up with the on-screen moves, and delivering the amusing script with a twinkle. And in a show honoring iconic scenes I was surprised and delighted to see something from the little-known Damn Yankees, ‘Shoeless Joe from Hannibal Mo’, in there. That and the ‘Putting on the Ritz’ sequence are delightfully cheesy fun. The singing occasionally needed a little more oomph, for example in the opening ‘New York, New York’, but live performers don’t have the benefit of post-production recording enjoyed by Kelly, Astaire and co. 

As the show goes on, the easy-to-understand concept gets a little murky – we’re apparently about to hear Hernando’s Hideaway (The Pajama Game) when the number turns out to be ‘Luck Be a Lady’ (Guys and Dolls), and half of that is done with a funked-up orchestration out of keeping with everything else in the show. Then, towards the end, when we reach China, the kitchen sink is thrown on stage, with a dance number that even a musicals bore like myself didn’t recognise, dancers waving tinfoil or something to represent freezing weather (cue dandruff being dumped on the audience), a random dragon and more. 

But check your credulity at the door, and any musicals fan will find plenty to enjoy here – not least one of the best Marilyn Monroe impersonations ever.




COMEDY
JO CAULFIELD: CRUEL TO BE KIND
THE STAND III and IV (Venue 12)

Fringe veteran – and no, that doesn’t mean wrinkly, she’s actually a bit of a fox – Jo Caulfield is back to show the trendy young Turks how it’s done. Her theme is things that make her angry, and apart from programme-makers who favour said young Turks because both sides speak fluent Plummy, the list includes job-nabbing Sue Perkins and sick-making new couples.

There’s a corker of a section involving a chance encounter in HMV that spiralled out of control, tales of her ‘girly-girl’ pals, real-world/bitter fairy stories that had the audience hooting, and the joy of other people’s children. To be honest, there’s not that much anger, but there are a heck of a lot of laughs. If not for the fact that reviewers get in for free I’d say the end sequence, in which Caulfield has the audience help with research for an upcoming magazine article, is worth the price of admission.

As it is, you can decide for yourself should you go to see one of the most distinctive, wittiest voices on the comedy circuit.

THEATRE

BETTE/CAVETT 
ZOO ROXY (venue 115)
GOD knows what Bette Davis would think of all the drag acts who have impersonated her since her death. I imagine she’d be tickled. Certainly there’s nothing but a mischievous respect for the grand dame of American cinema in this representation of a TV interview she gave in 1971.

Davis was a mine of great stories, and here she talks about breaking into films, fighting Warner Brothers for respect, not feeling threatened by other stars (ha!) and what a wonderful relationship she had with daughter BD (double ha!). Every few minutes Cavett cuts into the interview for a ‘message’ and the stage darkens as TV sets show ads from the time reminding us of the days when women’s false teeth were plastered with red wine and smoking was a wonderful way to spend a day in the countryside.

Grant Smeaton is a surprisingly bulky Bette, but after a few minutes I hardly noticed, so adept is he at capturing the performance Davis – decked out in fur hat and dark glasses – gave that night. Smeaton repeats the words, manifests the physical inflections, but adds an ironic knowingness. 

Gordon Munro plays it straighter as interviewer Dick Cavett, but given that Cavett’s manner was that of a camper, kinder Dick Dastardly, that’s still lets him be blooming funny. I’m reluctant to praise one actor over the other, for fear of sparking a Davis/Crawford-style fuel – suffice to say both Smeaton and Munro are endlessly entertaining as two larger than life figures. And a shout-out to the design team, for getting wardrobe and set spot-on.

While there are moments of apparent sincerity from the superstar, much of what Davis says seems pure image control. And Cavett is thrilled to play along, keener to show off his showbiz friendship than probe for anyt true insight.

While parts of the original interview are available online, seeing two talented actors deliver those wonderful lines live before you takes some beating. 



COMEDY
ANDI OSHO: AFROBLIGHTY 
THE STAND III and IV (Venue 12)
I’D not heard of Andi Osho, but I’m anybody’s for a bit of wordplay, and Afroblighty is a very nice bit of punnery. It’s also the perfect title for this show, which is built around Osho’s experience as a young Englishwoman with a Nigerian heritage. And while she’s too modest to mention it, Osho does have a bit of the Venus about her.

Well, a Venus with a full set of arms, a sharp mind and a wonderfully comfortable stage manner that belies her youth but betrays her experience as an acclaimed actress. Osho comes onto the stage, mug of tea in hand, and simply exudes warmth. As she starts speaking, the charm kicks in, with a bit of getting to know the audience prior to the meat of the show.

Osho was brought up by her single mother in the London borough of Newham, voted third-worst place to live in Britain (it was beaten by Hull and Middlesbrough – Edinburgh was the best, he writes smugly). With a loving extended family and colour-blind friends, it was a shock when one day something happened to open her eyes to racism.

It’s touching to hear how a bright, happy kid discovered other, less pretty, sides to people, but this is no sob story; Osho skilfully weaves the poignant remembrances among hilarious stories of weird bus rides, extreme face painting and tactless school dinner ladies. And she tells us how she came to terms with her different identities and cultures and finally melded them into ‘simply’ Andi – a young woman equal parts Cockney and Nigerian.

She closes with a powerful self-penned beat poem listing the things that make Britain, Britain, making for an unforgettable end to an unforgettable show. Go.



COMEDY
PAUL SINHA: EXTREME ANTI-WHITE VITRIOL 
THE STAND III and IV (Venue 12)
NOW there’s a catchy title. It’s what British National Party deputy leader Simon Darby accused Paul Sinha of demonstrating on the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2 last year. Sinha tells how the encounter came about, how it went and what came afterwards … and while the idea of a British Asian being accused of racism by a BNP man is ironic, funny even, the abuse Sinha had afterwards is less so.

But Sinha is a comic with a message to get across, unafraid to touch on difficult truths along the way. He shares his thoughts on why BNP support seemed to rise over the last couple of years, and whether Britain really is broken. As for what his point finally is, you’ll have to see the show. 

Along the way you’ll get an update on his rankings in the National Quiz Rankings, hear about what has to be one of the worst dates ever and enjoy a terrifically surprising tale of bladders and bigotry.

And if you’ve seen Sinha previously, you’ll note that the circuit’s most devilishly handsome gay GP has gotten even better. There’s an extra energy to his delivery, a confidence in his material that makes him mesmerising, and the stories funnier. If you’ve never seen Sinha, there’s never been a better time to catch him than in this thought-provoking hour.


THEATRE
MISSION OF FLOWERS
C AQUILA (VENUE 21)
PIONEERING airman Bill Lancaster saw himself as an adventurer. His family likely saw him as a heel. It’s one thing to have dreams of flying to glory in biplanes, quite another to dump your dependants to pursue them, having fallen under the spell of a society woman.

And it’s the seductive Jessie ‘Chubbie’ Miller who becomes the more famous half of the couple, after co-piloting a plane from England to Australia with Lancaster. Desperate to prove his worthiness/make some money/find fame, Lancaster embarks on ill-fated schemes, the last of which leads to the situation in which this play finds him …

. . . under a plane in the Sahara desert, with enough water to survive for a week or so. As the days pass, he tells us parts of his story, as we wonder if he’ll ever be rescued.

Leof Kingsford-Smith puts masses of energy into the role of Lancaster, bloodied by life but always believing that one day his ship – or biplane, rather – will come in. The script flashes between Lancaster addressing the audience with his story and writing a journal for Darling Chubbie and Darling Mother to read should he die. Often, Lancaster goes into character as Chubbie, or their friend Haydn, demonstrating that as rubbish a man as Lancaster likely was, they were worse.

And this is one of the main problems with Mission of Flowers – Lancaster is such a self-regarding, self-deluding, whingeing soul that it’s difficult to feel empathy for his plight; even he acknowledges he’s likely reaping what he sowed. And if he does get rescued, you know he’ll just mess up again. As for the ludicrously nicknamed Chubbie and toff Haydn, whatever bad things happens to them can’t come soon enough.

Not that this is the fault of Gerry Greenland’s script – Lancaster and co were real people and the logbook excerpts and court transcripts incorporated are the real thing. But perhaps reality could have been tweaked to make Lancaster a tad more likeable.

The other problem is the staging. I can live with the biplane that looks like a farmers’ market cheese stall, but the rapidfire shifting between narrative devices is awfully wearing. And the same piano line played dozens of times, whenever Lancaster pops back to his plane to write something, quickly descends from plaintive refrain to theatrical tinnitus.

We hear a shotgun something like five times, as Lancaster is haunted by a terrible incident, causing him to cornily cry out ‘Aah, the shotgun’ or somesuch.

At the end, a screen at the back of the stage details what became of Lancaster, but too darn quickly. I only just caught the coda, because I happened to be looking in that direction, but other members of the audience never managed to read it.

If you want to see some fine acting, and don’t mind a relentlessly depressing story told in a rhythmically repetitive manner, Mission of Flowers is for you. I suspect I’m simply the wrong audience.

COMEDY
ADAM HILLS MESS AROUND
Assembly @ Assembly Hall (VENUE 35)
IF YOU’VE ever seen Adam Hills you’ll know that funny as his stories are, the banter with the audience is often even better. The Aussie has heard this so many times over the years that this year he’s not brought a script – Mess Around is an hour of ad libbing.

And it works. Or at least it did on the night I was there, as audience members provided rich fuel for his patented brand of incredulity. From a teenager who looks like like Justin Bieber to a woman with blue in her hair so her husband can find her in a car park, and Hills’ very own ‘stalker’, the endless variety proved mighty amusing.

When Hills began sending photos of young Jamie to Twitter – with the OK of his dad, a BBC comedy executive, funnily enough – to see who online followers thought he looked like, I wasn’t sure the show could take it. But the comic chattered away while tweeting and with replies such as ‘a cloned Corey Feldman’ it was very much a case of no worries. Back and forth tweeting with an audience member, Richard from Brighton, proved less than comedy dynamite, as we could have learned he worked in Sainsbury’s a lot quicker if he and Hills had just talked. The mere fact that tweeting is possible doesn’t make for hilarity, though someone else did save the day by contributing a nice line about Doritos.

The laughter came constantly, as Hills and audience members matched wits, though never in a point-scoring sense. The biggest moment of participation came as we all posed for a picture with stuffed toy Honker, who’s campaigning to raise cash for Edinburgh Sick Kids after a punter gave him (him!) to Hills a few nights ago. Sounds weird, I know, but hilarity ensued as Honker appeared in his new Irn Bru tee shirt, his head fell off and fan Polli began sewing it back on.

It’ll be interesting to see where Hills goes with next year’s show – I can’t see Twitter still fascinating so many people in 2011. Or perhaps he’ll do an entire show online. I do hope not – Hills is comedy sunshine and it’s rather nice to bask in his glow. 

COMEDY
NICHOLAS PARSONS’ HAPPY HOUR
PLEASANCE COURTYARD (VENUE 33)
THE legend that is Nicholas Parsons is back for his tenth Fringe, interviewing Pleasance turns and giving them a chance to show a snippet of their act.

As an elder statesman of light entertainment, there’s nothing that can throw Parsons – well, if there is, it doesn’t include darker sexual practices involving ventriliquist’s dummies. Happily, the conversation with David Strassman and Chuck went over the heads of the younger members of the audience – the show is rated PG, in the Fringe Guide’s helpful new system – but the ever-dry Parsons was having a ball. Strassman did a fine job of selling his show, Strassman: Duality, a variation on the mad vent/sinister dummy theme, showing off the already creepy Chuck’s new animatronics. The best moment of the hour came as Strassman assured a little girl that Chuck wasn’t realllllly scary, before thrusting the doll, demonic-eyes burning red, towards her. I wonder if she’s slept since then.

The second guest was one Mr B, a cravat-obsessed, hip-hop Banjolele (SUBS, TRADEMARK, I BELIEVE) player appearing in Me, Me, Me. He sang a song about Surrey, though it was pretty much impossible to hear the words due to the loud fans – machines, not stalkers – around the Cabaret Bar. Much as I like to be cool, a working sound system would be marvellous … again and again, we couldn’t hear what Parsons was saying, and some punters gave in and had the fans besides them switched off. They died of heat exhaustion.

As with any Fringe chat show, the star rating is to some extent at the mercy of the guests, so it’s worth taking a punt on Parsons for a relaxed hour. But be ready to yell, ‘speak up’.



MUSIC
PINK SINATRA – SWING WITH A TWIST
HILL STREET THEATRE (VENUE 41)
OL’ BLUE eyes is back. Except he’s gone a distinct shade of pink. Scott Free enters the room in a sharp coral suit, complete with jaunty hat, and confounds expectations. Firstly, it’s not all hits from the Chairman of the Board – there’s My Way, Fly Me to the Moon, It Was a Very Good Year and a few others, but there are also songs made famous by Bobby Darin, The Beatles and Michael Buble.

And while the odd lyric is gender-flipped (‘It was a very good year/It was a very good year for blue-blooded boys’), this isn’t a Gay Show for Gay People Living in a Gay World – it’s a tuneful extravaganza for anyone who enjoys music with a Swing (pardon the expression) bent. 

And Free – not his real name – isn’t camp. He’s twinkly, bit not effeminate in the least – more Pink Panther than Pink Pansy. He grins devilishly at boys and girls alike as he shows that whether it’s ballads or belters, he can sell it. There’s a lovely melodic quality to Free’s voice, a richness that warms the soul. And boy, can he belt out the showstoppers.

But despite his talent and technique, Free’s happy to let the audience sing along, on the likes of Bad, Bad Leroy Brown and New York, New York. And the finale was something none of the audience will forget for a long time – it certainly sent us back into the wet streets with massive grins on our faces.

Some of the publicity for Pink Sinatra wrongly states the show is three hours, something that will likely put many people off when there are so many shows to see in so little time. In fact, this show of standards in which the standard is high is the standard one-hour. But by the end you’ll be wishing it was three hours. When I was 46, it was a very good show …



THEATRE
THE VIRTUOUS BURGLAR BY DARIO FO 
ASSEMBLY @ GEORGE STREET (VENUE 3)
‘A SATIRE of bourgeois hypocrisy where the burglar turns out as the virtuous one.’ So says the publicity blurb for this play and it certainly does what it says on the tin. Over the course of an hour we meet an Italian thief and his wife, and two monied couples. When it’s obvious the jig is up, the burglar just wants to accept his punishment and get out of the flat in which he’s locked with the criss-crossing adulterers. But the couples are desperate to cover up their indiscretions, so want the burglar to stay and back up their deceits.

I’m not convinced that knowing when you’re on to a loser makes you virtuous – the burglar is still a thief, happy to make a living by stealing the rightfully gotten gains of others. And whatever satire was obvious when Fo wrote this in the 1950s is long obscured by distance, geographical as well as chronological. But as classic farces go, this is timeless: the characterisations are broad enough to transcend the original context, the structure works and the jokes bring laughs, so it’s a case of sit back and enjoy the fun.

And there’s plenty of it in this production, led by Alex Hughes as suitably slinky cat burglar Angelo, who wants nothing but to do his job. Good luck with that, when needy wife Maria (Camilla Corbett) has the phone number of his latest targets, the flat owner (James Owen) turns up with his mistress, and the lunacy escalates from there. There’s plenty of diving into grandfather clocks, falling off couches and so on, all presented with a wonderfully light touch by the entire cast. Matching the physical comedy is the verbal dexterity with which the players deliver the lines of Joseph Farrell’s translation.

For a fast-moving, confidently mounted hour of amusement, Virtuous Burglar is a steal.



COMEDY
DAVE THORNTON – A DIFFERENT TYPE OF NORMAL  
GILDED BALLOON TEVIOT (VENUE 14)
HERE’S an unusual mix, as stand-up routines go – stories of growing up in Australia interwoven with tales of a much-loved father. There’s the potential for a maudlin hour of saccharine reminiscing, but Dave Thornton is better than that. 

The show opens with chat about typefaces, a fascination for former graphic designer Thornton, who brought along some rather fine flash cards he’d produced. As a journalist, I’m rather font (CORR) of the likes of Optima, Coranto and Interstate Bold Italic, but I was surprised at how much comic mileage could be gained from them. I suppose that’s what’s meant by graphic humour’.

The extremely personable Thornton was gifted a father and son in the front row, allowing him to bounce off them as he began chatting about his late dad, who was a pop singer turned cleaner. As is often the case, the comic and his father didn’t always like or understand one another, but the love was undeniable. The stories, while specific to the Thornton household, have a universality that touched the audience, even as we were laughing. And when the end comes, perfectly tying up the evening’s two strands, the collective lump in our throat was undeniable.

Don’t miss this skilfully structured, original show.




THEATRE
SAUSAGE AND SAMOSA 
ZOO ROXY (VENUE 115)
EVE, formerly Jane, is getting married. We don’t know who to, so cue flashbacks to a sub-Bridget Jones round of dating disasters. Included among tales of longing over a dry stone wall and disappointment in the supermarket is a case of date rape, which sits about as well with the rest of this one-woman play as a sausage does with a samosa.

Eventually, for no apparent reason other than that she has some Indian workmates, Eve turns to looking for a husband via the Asian tradition of arranged marriages. Eve vanishes behind the curtain for a couple of uncomfortable minutes and returns in the guise of a gorgeous Bollywood-style temptress/Nana Mouskouri. And suddenly the play turns into a game show, with the audience asked to vote, via samosa and sausage flashcards, on which of five men – four of them made up as ‘comic’ Indians – she should marry. Our choice is ignored and Eve phones the winner. Or something.

Despite a likeable performance from Elaine Pantling – she even throws in some Bollywood dancing – her self-penned play never takes off. The initial monologue of failed romance goes on too long, leaving little room for causal links between beginning and end. Why does Jane become the un-Indian sounding Eve? Why does a naturalistic monologue go all Ready Steady Cook? There’s the germ of something decent here, but the story needs work.

MUSICALS AND OPERA

PUTTING IT TOGETHER BY SONDHEIM
AUGUSTINE’S (VENUE 152)
OK, Stephen Sondheim virgins, this is the show for you. Forget the lazy claims that the work of the greatest living composer of musicals is ‘difficult’, with few hummable tunes. Unless it’s lowest common denominator to the point of nursery rhyme, any song is going to take a few hearings before you can sing along.

And it’s not as if there’s any reason to sing along if this revue is your introduction to Sondheim – there’s a wonderful ensemble present to put the songs across as God – er, sorry, Sondheim, intended. Because he’s very particular about how the songs are sung, and not every singer can cope with the complex wordplay, the internal rhymes and, vitally, the level of acting required.

For Sondheim compositions aren’t interchangeable; you couldn’t easily swap a love song from, say, ‘Sweeney Todd’ for one from ‘Sunday in the Park With George’. They’re specific to show, character, scene. You can drop them into a revue, as happens here, but without getting the emotion right along with the technique, the songs suffer.

This production of Putting it Together, a show devised by Sondheim and Julia McKenzie, gets things very right indeed. The set-up is an urban cocktail party, the type of event at which the various emotions demonstrated could easily manifest. The five-strong cast – Adam Woodhouse, Gayle Telfer-Stevens, Gregor Firth, Veronica Horta and Brock Yurich* – are word and pitch perfect as they deliver, without benefit of mics, some of musical theatre’s greatest numbers. Songs like ‘Ladies Who Lunch’, ‘Pretty Women’, ‘Being Alive’, ‘Rich and Happy’, ‘Could I Leave You?’ … some are funny, some are clever, some are insightful, some are gorgeous, often they’re all four.
There isn’t a duff moment, but favourite ones include ‘Everybody Ought To Have a Maid’ presented, for a change, as a boy/girl duet, and ‘Buddy’s Blues’ given real comic pizzazz by Yurich. And Telfer-Stevens deserves kudos, and a stiff drink, for pulling off the super-speed ‘Getting Married Today’.

The band, led by Neil Somerville, are full partners in the evening, providing not simply accompaniment, but magic.

So yes, Sondheim virgins, slap down a few quid for this show and take a risk. Sondheim fans know it’s no risk at all.

* Sadly, I couldn’t find a pic specific to the production, so here’s a general shot of Brock Yurich. There are many more online …





COMEDY
ARDAL O’HANLON 
ASSEMBLY @ GEORGE STREET (VENUE 3)
A PACKED house gave the Irish comic a huge welcome at his first Fringe show for years, bringing an air of anticipation for what was to come.

O’Hanlon has a way of putting a story across, which is just as well as his stories aren’t always especially funny or insightful – commentary on Ryanair’s pay-as-you-breathe policies,  mild observations about the teenage vampire trend, domestic tales of an eco-warrior daughter. It’s mildly amusing material, carried by O’Hanlon’s skill. The edgiest subject involved a family meeting over the care of  O’Hanlon’s mother, but he went off on a tangent and the matter evaporated. Or I somehow missed the continuation.

O’Hanlon came across as a thoroughly likeable blend of Dave Allen and Terry Wogan, and to be fair, the audience lapped up his Oirish charm. He only had to make a sideways reference to his role as Dougal on Father Ted to get a big round of applause. But O’Hanlon is fiercely intelligent and could surely come up with sharper material than he presents here.

COMEDY
SCOTTISH FALSETTO SOCK PUPPET THEATRE – ON THE TELLY 

GILDED BALLOON TEVIOT (VENUE 14)
MEET two socks with dreams. The duo who make up the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre want to make it big on the box, so present the audience with suggestions as to genres in which they might gain a toehold. These include historical drama, sport, cookery, gardening and finally, biopics, at which point we get to suggest the subject for the final playlet.

At the show I saw, the ‘winner’ was Anthea Turner, and sock puppet supremo Kevin Sutherland came through with a delightfully scurrilous portrait of the presenter, complete with instant two-verse song. The wit was no surprise, after the previous hour of tomfoolery in which the socks – who’ve been stocking up on new gags all year – had the audience in stitches. The  relationship between our stars is very much Eric and Ernie/Abbott and Costello, with the straight man trying to run the show while the partner messes around. But the timing’s more complicated given there’s just one performer having to converse with himself, while bouncing off an audience he can’t see.
Along with the skits come comedy songs, such as the reinterpretation of Eric Clapton’s Layla as ‘Vuvuzela’ and it’s quite the eye opener to watch a sock handle a guitar. And the puns … the puns are glorious.
I’m trying hard to unravel the secrets of the socks here, and fear I’m going to kill the frogs by dissection (actually, they do look like little grey Kermits). Get your own socks on, pop down to the Teviot and discover the magic for yourself.




COMEDY
DARRIN ROSE – WHAT’S POT POURRI? 
JUST THE TONIC AT THE CAVES (VENUE 88)
THE  title’s a reference to the fact that Darrin Rose was raised in an all-male household after his mother walked out on his father. With his dad, brother and himself too busy scrabbling to cook Pot Noodles and find the soap to bother with such soppy girly stuff as cleanliness, pot pourri was an alien concept.

But he survived his rough and tumble early years, and was looking decidedly natty for his show – certainly he has the best haircut I’ve seen this year. I wasn’t sure Rose would be my cup of tea, when the first four sentences ended with ‘man’, but once he began the set proper, doubts flew out the window. This is one of the most articulate comics I’ve seen lately, with a well-thought out concept put across with pizzazz.

Well, verbally articulate, anyway. Rose is quick to admit that with no women around in his formative years, he gets by on three basic emotions, and females are on the level of tigers so far as feeling comfortable around them goes. Presumably there’s some comedic exaggeration but Canadian Rose has an easy way that has you believing every word. 

THEATRE

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.

COMEDY
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.

COMEDY
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.


COMEDY
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.

COMEDY

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.


COMEDY
CARL BARRON
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.



COMEDY
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?

 


COMEDY
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 …

KIT AND THE WIDOW: OILING UP 

STAGE BY STAGE EDINBURGH ACADEMY (VENUE 70)
IT’S great to take a punt at a Fringe show you know nothing about. You might hate it, but you could come across the next biggish thing.
But there’s also a lot to be said for the guaranteed crowd pleaser.


And Kit and the Widow’s crowd is always very pleased. Not in a self-satisfied way, just a thoroughly entertained one. For singer Kit Hesketh-Harvey and pianist Richard Sisson have been at the musical cabaret thing awhile. Thirty years, in fact (check your attic, someone has the portrait). And every year they come to the Fringe with a show chock full of satirical songs and easy banter. Some of the tunes are pastiches, many are entirely original, some are old, some are new. All are gems.


This year, subjects include the BP oil spill, the coalition, an African bestiary, Nandos, speed cameras, the banning of bullfighting and people who like Sondheim (oi, that’s me!).


I referred to Kit as the singer and the Widow as the pianist, but that’s understating it rather. Kit’s voice is marvelously adaptable, the Widow’s playing wouldn’t shame a concert hall, and both chaps have a fine comic touch. Talented, charming, dapper, they’re teddy bears with bite, able to create a rapport with their audience in about eight seconds flat and even find a rhyme for ‘orange’.


Oiling Up! – I guess the title refers to the public school relationship of Cameron and Clegg – is an hour of easy pleasure that Kit and the Widow have worked darn hard to create. Go, and enjoy a sure thing.

And if you still fancy a punt at new talent, Kit’s chanson-singing daughter, Gus, is putting on a free show at the Academy, twice nightly …

CAROLINE RHEA

GILDED BALLOON TEVIOT (VENUE14)
IF YOU know Caroline Rhea at all, you’re probably about 30 and a onetime viewer of US teen sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch, in which Rhea played twinkly Aunt Hilda.


It turns out Rhea is magic in real life, able to turn a hall-ful of curious Sabrina fans into Rhea-boosters. For Rhea isn’t one of those American TV stars who come to the Fringe and expected to be lauded simply for getting off the plane. First of all, she’s Canadian, giving her an immediate affinity with Scottish audiences. As she says, she’s as pasty as any of us, and she can do a cracking accent, having been taught by Scots transplant Mrs Ewing.


Then there’s the fact that she’s not tied to a script; too many times I’ve seen US comics rely on notes. There’s none of that here; Rhea has subjects she aims to cover – her dating experiences, baby daughter, excitable orangutans, being upstaged by a cat puppet that looks like a rabbit in a wig – but she’s all over the place. In the best sense … she banters with the audience, goes off on tangents, stops to show us a terrifying corset she’s wearing (unnecessarily, she’s gorgeous), but always Rhea snaps back to give us the rest of her story. It’s safe to say that after this show you’ll never look at The Sound of Music in the same way again.


Rhea’s whip smart, immensely likeable and if this proves to be her only Fringe visit I’ll be grateful I saw her, but terribly disappointed.


And in something of a family affair, Rhea is supported by her fella, Costaki Economopoulos, a big name on the US comedy scene. It’s easy to see why. He’s confident without being cocky, funny without being foul-mouthed. He’s a little political, a little slice of life, and a lot funny. I can’t for the world imagine why he’s not putting on a show of his own, but I’m not complaining – his 12 or so minutes were a bonus, added onto Rhea’s hour, and every minute was a joy.


3 thoughts on “Edinburgh Fringe reviews 2010

  1. If I say so? Nearly 2500 individual shows – not peformances, productions – versus NYC's couple of hundred companies (that's from their own website)? It's the biggest in the world, no contest. Adelaide comes next, and NYC? No idea … but I don't just make this stuff up.

    As for Damn Yankees, I love it myself but I've never met anyone else in the UK who's even seen it. In the context of a show claiming to be celebrating the biggest Hollywood musicals, I stand by 'little-known'.

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