Like Love Story, and to some extent, the musical adaptation of Bend It Like Beckham, this Howard Goodall musical, Girlfriends, has too many songs in a similar style, which made me tune out somewhat. The narrative is not always driven forward by the songs, and more often it is the spoken-word narrator (Group Captain Victoria Gosling OBE: a real scoop for the London Musical Theatre Orchestra in having an actual senior figurehead within the Royal Air Force telling the story about the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) during the Second World War) who explains a lot in a short space of time, before a single point is seized on and sung about in a musical number or two. Or even three.
I cannot fault the orchestra, led (as usual) by the effervescent Freddie Tapner, who was musical director for a production of Girlfriends at the Union Theatre in 2014, and much of the singing itself is pleasant to listen to. That is actually a problem in this case: the work of the WAAF is portrayed as difficult and unrelenting, and yet the songs are lush and beautiful. Perhaps the concert staging didn’t quite work for me either, and the production as a whole felt as static as the performers rooted to their designated spots on the stage.
I mean, there was some movement (and I don’t just mean standing and sitting dependent on whether a character was even in a scene or not) but not much – because the musical doesn’t really call for it. Fair enough, in a show about the struggles and challenges faced by members of the WAAF, but there is not much to distinguish between some of the women characters. This might have been intentional, inasmuch as they were all in it together and all that, but it meant the narrative as a whole became rather distant – and, dare I say it, cold.
The ‘girlfriends’ who I could recall as being distinct characters are Jasmine (Vikki Stone) who came close to deserting the WAAF because she was not given ‘compassionate leave’ following the death of her brother, and Woods (Lizzie Wofford), who presumably had a first name but because of her seniority within the WAAF was portrayed as an insensitive and heartless leader (and then as a snowflake when she changed her mind with regards to Jasmine). I warmed to Jasmine, even if I didn’t really warm to anyone else: she asks the sort of questions that ought to be asked in wartime and didn’t blindly swallow up the propaganda of the day.
Guy (Rob Houchen) didn’t come across as unlikeable as the character’s words suggest. The lyrics were saying that it’s a tough war and everyone is having a hard time, but somehow this wasn’t really conveyed in the pretty and neat costumes and the melodious tunes that are a pleasure to listen to, but do little, if anything, to portray the struggles of the characters, or of the era. As Groucho Marx put it, “I’ve have had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it."
They’ve brought back Once? Already? It was March 2015 when it left the West End, when even the star casting of Ronan Keating (who was referenced in this new co-production between the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich and the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch) couldn’t keep the show running. Reviewing commitments elsewhere prevented me from attending opening night in Hornchurch, but as it was, on the whole, positively received, curiosity got the better of me and I went up anyway.
For whatever reason, this production seemed to emphasise the music-making more than the sort-of love story between the unimaginatively named Guy (Daniel Healy) and Girl (Emma Lucia), and for that, it made more sense than the West End show did. This was more about Girl getting Guy’s music out there, despite being a lady of limited means: she has her life, including a daughter Ivonka (a role shared between Isobella Elora Anderson, Lily Jackson and Lily-Anne Wilkin), and Guy has his, helping his ‘Da’ (Peter Peverley) run an electrical appliances repair store.
It’s Billy (Sean Kingsley) who steals the show for me, even more than the bluntness of Girl – a bombastic music shop owner who holds rather forthright views but is, at least, at peace with standing corrected. There’s that ‘aww’ moment when the Bank Manager (Samuel Martin), having sung about a boy whose heart has been “abandoned in Bandon”, a town in County Cork, is told by Guy and Girl that he should refrain from singing altogether.
More than ever, the ending left me thinking, ‘then what?’ What sort of life do Guy and Girl go on to, although it’s made clear that they’ve parted company, albeit amicably? There were people in the audience at the performance I attended that clearly felt more of an emotional connection with the production than me. I suspect they might have latched on to the pleasantness of it all – is there even an antagonist? (And, as the satirical musical revue Forbidden Broadway asks – is there even an orchestrator?) Everyone’s just pitching in, doing what they can for one another, with no detectable villainy.
In that regard, it’s not meant to work, and for my fellow reviewer Terry Eastham, the West End production failed on almost every level: “It felt as if someone had found a CD of the dullest and most despondent Irish songs and decided to write an extremely thin story around them.” True, it wasn’t exactly U2. But it’s charming, and there’s a strange appeal to the elements of the plot that don’t work out well. For all the musicals that preach about shooting for the stars, aiming big and high, and going for gold because we all only have one life, there’s Once. And in Once, there’s Andrej (James William-Pattison) – and I’ve been in his shoes, told that I was the frontrunner for a job, psyched myself up for an interview, only for the panel to go with someone else, leaving my recruitment consultant and myself frankly numb. As Andrej put it, “Bastards! Bastards!”
I might have been the only one amused by Guy’s opening number, in which he almost screams into the microphone, “Leave! Leave!” – I’d only just sat down for one thing, and Havering, the borough where Hornchurch lies, was apparently the only London borough to have a majority who voted in favour of Brexit. Anyway, the actor-musicianship was always going to be of good quality – the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch has even done pantomimes with on-stage bands, and their previous actor-muso productions of Made in Dagenham and Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Musical set them in good stead for Once. One of these days they’ll do a good regional production of Come From Away. But for now, what a performance!
Until 20 October 2018.
I suppose I ought to be grateful I wasn’t alone in feeling the post-lunch slump during a mostly subtle play with some pauses so long the late Harold Pinter may have been inclined to suggest should be curtailed. A lady in the front row momentarily nodded off; a man a few rows back seemed to miss most of the show, slumped on an aisle seat. There we were, the Saturday matinee audience at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester: perhaps some of us expected a show called Cock to be, well, cocky – and while there is a certain swagger about M (Matthew Needham), a lot of it is talking heads and nothing else.
Literally, nothing else, apart from the everyday clothes the characters wear. No set, no props, not even any action, though with the theatre’s decision to have the audience seated on all four sides of the auditorium, making the show ‘in the round’, or to be more precise, ‘in the square’ (or is it ‘in the rectangle’?), at least the actors move around the performance space. I can’t even call it a stage – there’s no raised platform, just a red box with which all the action must take place. The only properly named character is John (Luke Thallon), with the aforementioned M being his male partner, W (Isabella Laughland) being his female partner (that is, Woman) and F (Simon Chandler) being M’s Father. They are not so ridiculous as to refer to one another at any point as M, W or F (this isn’t James Bond), but John is torn between being with M, with whom he was first in a relationship, but he has known W for longer, as they were friends going back some years.
The salient thing about the play is that John is under pressure to determine whether he is gay or straight, or as F suggests, bisexual. M and W find out about each other, and it all gets a bit complicated; F is only there as John has told M than W is ‘manly’, and so M wanted some backup in case a meetup between all of them got out of hand. But W isn’t ‘manly’, and all are agreed that she is, whichever way one looks at it, ‘feminine’ both in character and appearance. There are qualities that John finds extraordinary in both. Both M and W insist on exclusivity – ‘friends with benefits’ is out of the question (to the point where the question is not even asked).
Thallon’s John trembles as he feels the strain of making an impossible choice – it’s quite a harrowing sight – and when W decides she’s had enough of his apparent indecisiveness, M has reason to believe John is his by default. But, to quote Porgy and Bess, it ain’t necessarily so. John says nothing. M wants an unequivocal promise of commitment. John says nothing. M begs. John says nothing. You get the idea, and my fellow audience member in the block opposite slumps his head once more, bored waiting for John to respond.
It’s a strange play, but I can see why some have responded very positively to it. The world has somewhat shifted since its first outing in 2009 at the Royal Court, but perhaps not enough. To be clear – it’s a personal crisis of sexual identity rather than gender identity. If a label were to be put on John, I’d probably plump for ‘bicurious’ – he’s exploring whether he’s attracted to people of the same gender as well as people of another gender. But to place a label on him at all is missing the point: why should there be labels at all?
I had to laugh at a review elsewhere that said “the actors never actually touch” – underneath the review is a photo of two of the four actors, er, touching. I picked a similar one for this blog post. This production starts off joyfully enough but gradually goes deeper, darker, and more delicate. And in not coming to any neat and tidy solutions, it is a show that provides much food for thought.
Until 27 October 2018
Well, it is a fusion of musical theatre and ‘cirque’, though if you’re going in with an expectation of hearing the sort of showtunes that wouldn’t go amiss on the BBC’s ‘Elaine Paige on Sunday’, you may be a little miffed by the chart music that takes up a good portion of proceedings in Burlesque’D. the storyline may not, for the most part, be anything new, inasmuch as there is nothing new under the sun. I had the privilege of revisiting the West End revival of 42nd Street recently and there, as here, a fresh-faced performer with a heart full of dreams and ambitions leaves her hometown in pursuit of stardom. Substitute Allentown for Massachusetts, New York for Hollywood, Peggy Sawyer for Crystal Lake (Charlotte Jeffery), and the skeleton structure for the show is more or less there.
The devil is in the detail, however, and when the burlesque venue run by Sofia (Valentina Canadiani) must find new premises on account of a change of proprietor, a subplot develops. While the happy ending is somewhat predictable, the route taken to get there is less so, and it is pleasing to note, in the context of #MeToo and #TimesUp, that this group of scantily dressed ladies use legal and contractual means to their advantage rather than having (or indeed choosing) to sleep with anyone to get what they want.
The ambience of the venue for Burlesque’D does not lend itself perfectly to the quieter scenes with spoken dialogue – and, dare I say it, at least from my vantage point, the occasional line was difficult to decipher: more amplification wouldn’t have gone amiss. The production gets the sound pitch perfect when it comes to the musical numbers, helped by some stunning vocals. I can’t pick out a stand-out performance – they all work very well together, and it is always good to see a cast clearly enjoying themselves on stage.
I can’t imagine it would have been nearly as easy as the company make it look to dance in those high heels: it brought to mind a lady I once saw at Gatwick Airport who, having underestimated the walk to get to where she was going, had given up on going any further in heels, having taken hers off and continuing on barefoot. The Emcee (James Paton) does much more than introduce acts tell the audience what is coming up, with a rope routine duet with him and Sofia proving to be a particularly memorable moment.
The stage action goes up a few notches in the second half, and some vibrant routines make for a good night out. It could just about be merged into a one-act show – it would need to be if it were to be taken, for instance, to the Edinburgh Fringe (I think it would fit in well there). The set is fairly simple as it stands, though the production uses the available performance space very well. Although it extends into the audience there isn’t even a scintilla of audience participation: it’s all left to the professionals. There’s a pole – why wouldn’t there be? – but it is rather underused, and I wonder if it could be dispensed with altogether. But, at the end of the day, this is a show with a palpable feelgood factor, with recognisable songs to enjoy.
Photo credit: Vicky Murua
I owe an apology to anyone who I have curtly snapped back at whenever they have suggested that as I’ve seen quite a few live shows over the years that I’ve seen it all. But I must insist that I haven’t, and never will: there are always new productions, of old and new works. I recall one person who said to me, ‘You name it, I’ve seen it’. After I named a few obscure productions she suddenly decided I was ‘very rude’ and made it quite clear that she wanted nothing to do with me. Well, I can’t win ‘em all.
This weekend, I found myself witnessing two things I’d never bothered checking out before. The first was going to the stage door after a show on the last night before a cast change. As it goes, the cast change at Bat Out of Hell The Musical involved ‘only’ two people, but such was their contribution to the production from the very early stages of development that the departure of Patrick Sullivan and Andrew Polec was a special occasion for the show’s die-hard followers. The former is (as I understand it) to join a touring production of a musical adaptation of Dr Doolittle, and the latter is to lead the North America touring production of Bat.
If I was utterly bemused and amused by what I saw, the security personnel at the back of the Dominion Theatre were less so. Apparently, a typical crowd at stage door would comprise no more than around thirty people. On this night, there were at least a couple of hundred, and the designated barriered space set up was insufficient to contain the crowds who were clamouring for one last autograph / handshake / selfie. I’m afraid I just didn’t get the appeal of ‘stage dooring’ – it’s hardly a civilised activity: the lead actress, Christina Bennington, could be heard asking the crowds to step back. One eagle-eyed theatregoer shouted “Car!” whenever a vehicle would insist on inching past, and a mass of people would squeeze onto the pavements, only to fill the road up again instantly afterwards.
There really must be a better way of managing something like this. Charging for a meet-and-greet may be seen in some quarters as a rip-off (stage dooring is free) but it would certainly be a lot safer on popular nights. But a nominal amount for a post-show meet-and-greet only eligible for those with tickets for that evening’s performance would, if anything, stop those who weren’t in attendance that evening muscling in and crowding out those who were. I felt a little sorry for the stars of the show, hounded by the hordes in this way, and at the risk of sounding like the miserable health and safety police, someone at some point is bound to get hurt.
The second new experience was seeing a Jeremy Jordan concert. He has a fanbase in the UK, despite not having starred in a London show (as far as I could deduce, anyway), having had several television series, including Smash and Supergirl, the former being about a New York musical theatre community, the latter, as the title suggests, about a superhero. I was aware of two things about him prior to seeing his concert at Cadogan Hall. He’d done Disney’s Newsies, which I came to know about because it was filmed and then put on limited release in certain cinemas (it was a one day only event in the UK) before eventually being released for digital download. Then there was the motion picture version of the Jason Robert Brown musical The Last Five Years, which saw Jordan starring alongside Anna Kendrick.
Jordan’s style took a little getting used to. He doesn’t enunciate in the way in which the likes of the Royal Shakespeare Company do, but that didn’t stop me comprehending what was sung. And he’s very talented, with his own material presented alongside the likes of ‘She Used To Be Mine’ from Waitress – yep, a ‘guy’ version – and the perhaps inevitable ‘Moving Too Fast’ from The Last Five Years. There was no album amongst the merchandise available for sale (though Jordan had taken the time to sign every single programme) but there’s a recording coming soon, the audience was told, much to their delight.
Jordan has a wonderful singing voice, and accompanied by a five-piece band, led by musical director Ben Rauhala, the evening passed pleasantly enough. Jordan and Rauhala enjoyed some witty exchanges, and in the relaxed environment, Jordan stumbled on a lyric or two. But hey, it’s his own show, he can do as he pleases, and such matters only really added to the authenticity of the performance. Alternative arrangements of tunes such as ‘Under The Sea’ from The Little Mermaid and ‘Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’’ from Oklahoma! put such numbers in a new light, and the concert rounded off with a playful rendering of ‘It’s All Coming Back To Me Now’, which, given my experience twenty-four hours prior over at Bat Out of Hell The Musical, meant my weekend had come full circle.
As I agreed with another reviewer at the first of several singalong performances of Bat Out of Hell The Musical, there isn’t much to review that hasn’t already been reviewed, by ourselves and by others. So, I make no apology for relative brevity here. Lyrics were displayed on a dot matrix screen held above the stage – but not all of them: the audience was not expected to sing through the entire musical. Just as well, as some of these Jim Steinman songs are quite exhausting to sing properly when seated: “I can baaa-rely recaaaa-ll, but it’s aaaallll coming baaaack to meeee noooooowwww!”
That didn’t, of course, stop those in the audience who knew all the words anyway – and the whole point of a singalong show is that people, um, sing along. But there seemed to be a special place reserved, at least in my section, for the incomparable Danielle Steers: the lyrics to ‘Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad’ flashed and flashed, and nobody stirred: even here, people wanted to hear Ms Steers. Little wonder, then, that Steers’ interval tweet read: “The atmosphere tonight is off the charts!!! BUT you can sing LOUDER!!! COME OOOOONNNN!!!”
The show was, mind you, just as terrific when the audience’s voices were out in force, for ‘I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)’, and it’s only in the course of singing the songs that one realises how emotionally stirring some of them are. The account of domestic violence in ‘Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are’ is made particularly harrowing when singing lyrics like, “There were endless winters and the dreams would freeze / Nowhere to hide and no leaves on the trees / And my father’s eyes were blank as he hit me again, and again, and again”.
I think that’s the beauty of shows like ‘Bat’, or ‘BOOH’ as it is more commonly known to its fans – there are different aspects to be taken away with every repeat visit. The atmosphere was expectant, and the show is so loud anyway that the pros on stage were never going to be drowned out by the audience, even if every single one of us screamed every line. I don’t think the singalong format would work for every West End musical, but it certainly does for this one.
This was an unusual Bank Holiday weekend, in that I took time out instead of doing what I normally do, and gear up for doing work that I hadn’t had time to plough through in ordinary time, such are the number of interruptions in both the day job and whatever passes for downtime when I’m not seeing a show or reviewing it. The weather was quite typical for a Bank Holiday weekend, though as all my activities were indoors I couldn’t have cared less. In fact, I might well have noticed it more if it were sunnier. Or sunny at all.
The lure of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe finally got to me this summer after decades of insisting there’s enough stuff in London to see and do, thank you very much. There’s a lot I learned about how to approach the Fringe – and how not to do it – and being there as a reviewer for the first time, I probably buggered up more than I got right. Or at least it felt that way: while my decision on insisting on staying in central Edinburgh was, in hindsight, brilliant. One lady told me about her daily commute from Glasgow every day. The rent is substantially cheaper in Glasgow, and some Fringe regulars stay there every time, but one is effectively stuck in Edinburgh until the last show of one’s day.
There were times when, such were the crowds, that it was just easier to get a takeaway from somewhere and trek back to the flat. Occasionally I stood around eating junk food from a plastic tray – and on a rather breezy Saturday night back in Edinburgh, onions and ketchup stains covered what was a pristine blue shirt. I don’t regret that hot dog: I was starving, particularly as the Edinburgh International Conference Centre wasn’t serving the food I thought it was going to, so no pre-show meal before seeing Daniel Sloss’ comedy gig a second time.
It was a last-minute decision to go back after an eight-day stay earlier in the month, mostly to try to catch up with various people who specifically requested a catch up but I couldn’t squeeze in, because in my self-deprecating manner of thinking, I didn’t think anyone would want to meet me. This is, unavoidably, going to sound like bragging, for which I can only apologise, but as it happens my first meetup was at 9:30am, and my last didn’t finish until after midnight. And because I had a much-reduced Camden Fringe review workload this year – to be reduced yet further (if all goes according to plan) in 2019 – there wasn’t the last-minute begging from various companies to review shows there that I had almost gotten used to.
A real treat that I’m glad I made time for on Saturday afternoon was Once Seen on Blue Peter, most of which was aimed at a generation before mine, but was still compelling in every way. There was another show at the Fringe, ‘Very Blue Peter’, which I might have seen but it was deemed a ‘waste of time’ by some audience members. I wonder if that other show was just simply never going to be able to compete with one that had Peter Purves, Janet Ellis, Peter Duncan, Mark Curry and Tim Vincent live and in person. I suppose I shall never know.
Reliving some of their experiences with the cast, the audience audibly gasped when, for instance, a clip was shown of Duncan joining the team that cleans the faces of the clock tower in Westminster that houses Big Ben. Of all the words spoken on in various shows I saw at the Fringe (36 shows in the end), it was three words that left me an emotional wreck, Purves on John Noakes: “I miss him.”
Back in London, I don’t regret not having stayed longer in Edinburgh having seen the National Theatre production of Pericles. A cast of well over 200 people, most of whom were drawn from several community theatre and performing arts projects across London, who joined professional card-carrying Equity members on the Olivier Theatre stage. My 4* review is published here – the production was excellent, the (re)writing and adaptation of the Shakespeare (and George Wilkins) text rather less so. The music was good, if eclectic, and the whole thing generally worked well, with slickness and a genuine commitment to diversity: the audience heard from a Bulgarian choir (well, I can’t actually vouch for the nationality of each of its members – it was a choir that sung in Bulgarian) as well as some drummers who play in the style of classical Indian music.
I was rather drained, not from Pericles, but from all that travelling to and from the Fringe a second time. I can’t see myself doing the overnight National Express coach trip again, even if I enjoyed having a hot meal at each of the two service station stops (I don’t think even the pricey Caledonian Sleeper stretches to two meals), though I appreciate half the difficulty is removed by virtue of the fact that I’ve done it once and survived, so I can do it again and survive again. Or ‘fail better’, to paraphrase Samuel Beckett.
On the way back from the National, I encountered some revellers who had enjoyed the Notting Hill Carnival, despite the rainy conditions. One fellow passenger remarked that they had looked like they had lost a mud fight – indeed, such was their appearance that one could be forgiven for thinking they had participated in Tough Mudder. They proceeded to apply glitter to a willing volunteer, while chiding another passenger for apparently pretending to be asleep. After several minutes I could only agree with them: the level of noise they generated was nothing short of anti-social, and it was quite impossible to remain asleep. I am grateful to them for leaving me well alone.
But one must get out of bed at some point, even on a miserable Bank Holiday Monday, so I took myself off to see Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, to give it its proper title (not ‘Mamma Mia 2’) – better late than never. Given that it’s a motion picture, I would have thought the sound balance between vocals and band would have been better than it was. Parts of it are beyond ludicrous: when Cher’s Ruby Sheridan calls out to Andy Garcia’s Senor Cienfuegos by his first name, Fernando, there are no prizes for guessing which tune out of the ABBA repertoire immediately follows. It is mostly fun, however, with some poignant moments thrown in, and is worth seeing.
So endeth the last break before the festive season. I have been instructed to relocate for the day job to Beckton, at the ‘wrong’ end of the Docklands Light Railway for someone who lives in south-west London, so we shall see how that goes. I may not be long for that parish. But then I might relish having a longer commute to get more reading done. At least there are no additional Travelcard costs involved.
The Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production of Little Shop of Horrors almost lets itself down in being a show that just so happens to be outside as opposed to one that finds ways of incorporating the natural surroundings into the set. That said, if it does transfer somewhere else – and, all things considered, I have no objection to the production having a life beyond this summer – it will be interesting to see how the show incorporates the use of parts of the theatre other than the stage. At one point, Audrey II (Vicky Vox), unimaginatively named after Audrey (Jemima Rooper), by the show’s protagonist, Seymour (Marc Antolin), sings from the centre of the theatre. A big cheer went up from the rear half of the auditorium, prompting the front half to wonder what was going on.
This isn’t so easily done in a proscenium arch theatre, though I note Strictly Ballroom The Musical uses a box from which the character of Doug Hastings cheers on his son. There are also large bouncy balls that make their way into the audience, to be passed around, something I’ve not seen since the Menier Chocolate Factory of production of La Cage aux Folles transferred to the Playhouse Theatre. Now, re-adjusting back to the London theatre scene after a trip to the Edinburgh Fringe can sometimes mean that one wonders what everyone is laughing at. I suppose one sees more outrageous things there than are placed on stage in London and hammed up for dramatic effect.
I couldn’t really see the point of a huge sign that never left the stage telling the audience a drive-in theatre is closed, any more than I couldn’t see the point of an almost equally large poster of President Obama in the Open Air Theatre’s production of Ragtime, when that show was set in the early twentieth-century. Here, the shop operated by Mr Mushnik (Forbes Masson), is literally, and admirably, ‘little’, and the relatively brief performance, just about stretching a few minutes beyond two hours with an interval and a padded-out finale, is slick and delightful.
Not having seen a production of this musical before, it’s was nice to finally be able to see and hear certain songs beloved of musical theatre cabarets and concerts in context. ‘Somewhere That’s Green’ is gloriously parodied, with surprisingly few changes in the lyrics, in an episode of the animated television comedy Family Guy, in an episode called ‘The Courtship of Stewie’s Father’. Rooper’s rendering in this production is altogether sublime, an impassioned yet subtle expression of longing for the realisation of her somewhat modest American Dream.
As I say, I found it less amusing than most people in the audience. Never offensive in the slightest, but merely unfunny. Through contemporary lenses, a subplot involving domestic violence (the show’s first production, off-Broadway, opened in 1982) is about as (un)amusing as the one in the recently closed London revival of Young Frankenstein. I do rather wish Orin (Matt Willis), the antagonist of the show was, well, more antagonistic. For me, the standouts in the show were Chiffon (Renée Lamb), Crystal (Seyi Omooba) and Ronnette (Christina Modestou), the trio narrators who brought to mind the show-stealing The Divas from the musical adaptation of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
A bright and colourful production, it’s one of those shows best enjoyed by simply relaxing and letting it wash over you.
Until 22 September. https://openairtheatre.com/
There are flyer distributors at the Edinburgh Fringe who can tell I’m fully booked and let me pass by unhindered. There are others who understand the meaning of, ‘Sorry, I’m fully booked.’ There are still others who tell me I shouldn’t have apologised for being fully booked: I’m a reviewer and it’s a performing arts festival. And then there are others who simply do not listen: one insisted on interrupting me whilst sat down in between shows, wolfing down pizza and chips, to tell me about a show which I didn’t have time to see, having a rammed schedule before I’d even come up to “the ‘Burgh”. Not quite satisfied with having come between a man and his meal, they even go so far as to suggest I could extend my stay at the Fringe to ‘make time’ to see their production. Nope, nope, nope. I would name and shame, but I threw the flyer away and I don’t recall what production it was.
I was only up for longer than my usual flying visit because a friend of a friend had a spare place available in student digs, not far from Pleasance Courtyard, the famed ‘Venue 33’ at the Edinburgh Fringe, and so for less than £250 I had a room for eight days. Except I didn’t have it for eight days – I only had it for seven, but the group organiser had made a typing error. The problem was that I had committed to review five shows on my final day at the Fringe, the last of which would finish too late to catch the last train of the day out of Waverley Station, leaving the overnight coach out of Edinburgh Bus Station the only possible alternative to finding somewhere else to stay for the night.
Out of the question. So, I found a nice room with en suite shower and toilet, and bed linen that fit the bed. None of those options were available in the student digs, where the company managing the summer accommodation on behalf of the University of Edinburgh, supplied one knife, one fork, one spoon, one plate, one coffee mug, one glass per person, with stiff penalties for breakages (how do you break a metal fork?). They did at least provide towels (these weren’t available over at Safestay Edinburgh – fortunately I had brought my own towel and bathrobe).
Pat and Liz were my only flatmates for the first couple of days. Retired ladies, they weren’t in Edinburgh for the Fringe, though they did see the Military Tattoo one evening, but as they’ve known our collective ‘landlord’ for years, they took advantage of the special group accommodation rate. Their schedule was filled with trips to the great outdoors and historic places. They were lovely, and by the end of the week they were more than a little envious that I was taking myself off to somewhere where the doors didn’t squeak.
I was incensed enough to make my own arrangements already for 2019, such was the good time that I had at the Fringe this year that I’m going back next year, and staying in the place where a fellow reviewer is staying this summer, hosting an eclectic mix of people. When I mentioned the name where I had decided to stay next year, she immediately beamed, telling me that’s where she was staying now, and I was treated to a site visit there and then. It’s private student accommodation, an improvement on the University-owned rooms.
The Fringe shows I had secured a press ticket for have been reviewed separately, but there were a few that I caught just for the hell of it. ‘Care Not, Fear Naught’ (4 stars) from Temporarily Misplaced Productions was a passionate look at the life of Anne Bonny, an Irish pirate in the early eighteenth century. Some artistic licence was deployed in a show with ten actors – a huge cast by Edinburgh Fringe standards, especially given the number of solo stand-up comedy shows and monologue dramas. But the artistic licence is taken really because relatively little is known about Bonny’s life, though the salient points about her becoming a pirate and having relations with the ship’s captain (and thus receiving preferential treatment) are pretty much agreed upon by historians.
Just as engaging, even if the result wasn’t nearly as impressive, was The Extinction Event (3 stars), which sees David Aula and Simon Evans, both magicians, create the sort of magic tricks that, frankly, would just about work well in a high school talent contest. It came across to me more like The Memory Event, with a remarkable feat on Aula’s part, in which he accurately determines a word from a large book when given page number, paragraph and line.
I was amused by Rhys Nicholson (4 stars) telling his audience that they should see as many performances as they were able, and then see certain people they liked again and again, year after year. I caught Nicholson’s Fringe show last year, purely because I had some time to kill in between seeing shows that friends were in, and his stand-up set was, I think, in the same venue as The Upcoming, a show whose co-producer had tried to persuade me to come to the pre-Edinburgh preview in London of – I was otherwise engaged. I liked his fast-paced, frenetic style, and had come to see him again. As a gay man based near Melbourne, a fair amount of his set talked about the 2017 plebiscite on same-sex marriage.
I had tried, as far as possible, not to see shows I had already seen in London, preserving the limited time I had available to, well, shows I hadn’t seen before. But as ‘Statements’ from the Catapult Theatre Company (5 stars) was playing at the Fringe I couldn’t help but indulge in a repeat visit to this remarkable show about the provision of special educational needs in a mainstream secondary school. ‘Nine Foot Nine’ (3 stars), presented by the Sleepless Theatre Company, which I didn’t get around to seeing when it played at the Bunker Theatre near London Bridge Station, considers what it would be like if every woman in the world gained impressive physical strength commensurate with being 9’ 9” tall.
It’s written by Alex Wood, who used to speak to me quite regularly on the reviewing circuit but now doesn’t give me the time of day. I’d ask him why he now can’t abide my company but, um, he doesn’t give me the time of day, and frankly, I don’t care enough to probe further. He certainly won’t be inclined to resume cordiality if he reads this: the show is well-performed, but the writing lets it down. Not being in chronological order, the narrative jumps around too much and is made unnecessarily complicated.
‘The Beggar’s Opera’ (3 stars) was my only foray into the Edinburgh International Festival. Perhaps it was the relative comfort of the seating in the King’s Theatre, as opposed to the plastic chairs common to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but I found it difficult to retain interest. The proceedings are brought into the present day, which means that bizarrely, hanging is still a thing in twenty-first century London. That isn’t the main problem with it: the sound balance wasn’t right, and the actors, mostly from musical theatre backgrounds as opposed to opera, couldn’t be heard properly above the orchestra. Just as well the lyrics were surtitled.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.