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Posts Tagged ‘Summerhall’

Crocodile Fever*** at the Traverse was an extraordinary cocktail of black comedy, horror & fantasy with an added dose of the surreal! Set in South Armagh during ‘the troubles’, two sisters who haven’t seen each other for eleven years unleash horror on their bullying dad, with a lot of twists, turns and revelations along the way. It was too Tarantinoesque for my taste, a bit heavy handed and OTT, but you had to admire it’s chutzpah, and gold stars to the production staff who have to erect and dismantle an elaborate set worthy of the West End daily, the latter after it’s been roughed up rather a lot.

One of political comedian Matt Forde‘s daily shows**** is each week turned into a live, lighthearted political podcast with a guest and when we went he’d pulled off the coup of getting Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. It was a good blend of serious and irreverent and Sturgeon was game; I rather warmed to her.

Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein**** is the creation of a silent movie before your very eyes using three overhead projectors, actors, puppets, live music and sound effects. You can watch the creation or the end result or both, as I did. This American group is like our own Paper Cinema, but bigger and more complex, with ‘live’ action. I found myself more engaged with the creation than the story, but it was captivating nonetheless.

In a joint venture with the Television Festival, we got to see TV writer Russell T Davies****, most famous for resurrecting Dr Who, in conversation, illustrated by film clips. His body of work is extraordinary and his enthusiasm and boyish nerdiness was infectious. Illuminating and entertaining.

I only know American folk musician Anais Mitchell**** from her recent NT & Broadway hit musical Hadestown, but I loved her concert at Queens Hall. She writes great songs, and with the help of another guitarist, plays and sings them beautifully. Carsie Blanton provided outstanding support with a more varied, lighter set that was just as enthralling.

Buzz*** at Summerhall was storytelling illustrated by film, music and a soundscape. It was often gripping, but when the actor used a microphone she became inaudible behind the music / sound and when she changed character you sometimes got lost; well, I did anyway. I had to ask my companions too many questions afterwards!

No such problems with Fishbowl**** at the vast Pleasance Grand as there was next to no dialogue! This French company presented an ingenious and hysterical show about three very different inhabitants of adjoining attic apartments and their connections with one another. Brilliant physical comedy and a real comic treat.

Had I fully realised what Julius ‘Call Me Caesar’ Caesar*** was I probably wouldn’t have gone. It was a frenetic one-man-telling of Shakespeare’s story which even at only an hour seemed too long, but you had to admire comedian Andrew Maxwell’s hard work and audience engagement.

Modern opera’s are a risky affair but Breaking the Waves****, based on the Lars von Trier film of the same name, was one of the best I’ve ever seen. The challenging story of what one troubled woman believes she has to do for god and the love of her injured man was hugely dramatic and the music just as dramatic but also accessible. American soprano Sydney Mancasola was stunning in the lead role.

Back at the Traverse to begin the final day with How Not to Drown*****, the story of a Kosovan refugee who from aged 11 to 16 travelled to and lived in England, returning briefly to reunite with his parents in Tirana. It was deeply moving, with the refugee himself (now late twenties) narrating / performing, and brilliantly staged and performed. An absolute highlight.

Sometimes the juxtaposition of shows impacts enjoyment, and so it was with Austentatious*** which seemed too light and frivolous after How Not to Drown. Still the improvised ‘Pride & Prejudice on the Titanic’ was fun, but it would probably have been more fun at another time.

1927’s Roots**** at Church Hill Theatre didn’t live up their earlier work, largely because it was a loose collection of unconnected tales rather than a cohesive story, but their unique brand of live action and music synchronised with animation worth seeing nonetheless.

The final show, at the Traverse again, was Enough***, about two air stewardesses having a mid-life crisis. I liked the poetic writing, but the attempts at bringing in bigger issues were a bit obtuse and half-baked.

Little time to take in much art, but retrospectives of Bridget Riley and recent discovery (for me) Victoria Crowe and some Grayson Perry tapestries telling the life story of fictional Julie, the inspiration for his House for Essex, were all very good, and of course some fine dining, notably at newbie Grazing by Mark Greenaway, last year’s discovery The White Horse seafood restaurant and Martin Wishart’s The Honours.

A year without bummers, and with more than 60% of shows shining. Until next year?…..

Time for a rest; four days in Northumberland…..

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Well, here we are back at the world’s biggest arts festival, with more than 2000 shows to navigate. In a one week visit, we’ll manage around 20 to 25, a mere 0.01%, but at 3 to 4 a day, a still impressive attempt I’d say.

We started with main festival opera at the Komisher Opera Berlin’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin**** at the Festival Theatre, sometimes called the opera where nothing happens! What does happen is gorgeous music, played and sung here as well as I’ve ever heard it, in an unusual outdoor staging in gardens and woods which looked as gorgeous as it sounded.

The fringe started at 10am the following morning at my second home, the Traverse Theatre, with the highly original and very thought-provoking Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Iran****. Opening with the alternatively revolutionary instagram feeds of the privileged sons and daughters of Iran’s revolutionary guard, it bounced around as a modern day illustrated lecture covering all sorts of current issues and prophesies, with the audience joining in on instagram. It divided the group, but I really liked it.

Back at the main festival, Robert Icke’s modern take on Sophocles’ Oedipus*** for Internationaal Theater Amsterdam (formerly Toneelgroep) at the Kings Theatre was a bit of a mixed bag, largely because of the pacing, at times very slow. I’ve seen this group many times, but what struck me on this occasion was the quality of the acting and the chemistry between the performers, which I suspect is the result of regularly working together over long periods.

It would be impossible to kick-start a Sunday more thrillingly than with The Patient Gloria****, the retelling of the true story of a woman exploited by psychotherapists as a third wave feminist tale, back at the Traverse. Brilliantly staged, defiant, ballsy (!) and very very funny, with Gina Moxley superb as both writer and co-lead. Perfect festival fare.

It was good to catch Eugene O’Neill’s short play Hughie*** and add it to my ‘collection’ of this favourite 20th Century American playwright. It got it’s stage premiere in Stockholm in 1958, 16 years after it was written, but has since attracted stars like Burgess Meredith, Jason Robards, Ben Gazarra, Al Pacino, Brian Dennehy & Forest Whittaker. Here comedian-turned-actor Phil Nicol was outstanding as the gambler who never stops talking, with Mike McShane superb as his ‘straight man’.

Back at the main festival, in the Usher Hall, Elgar’s underrated oratorio The Kingdom**** sounded superb, even with a stand-in conductor and two stand-in soloists. Whatever you think of this somewhat incomprehensible work the music is lush and it’s hard to imagine it better played than here by the Halle, or sung better than by the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and four fine British soloists.

Amy Booth-Steele is a musical theatre actress I’ve often admired, and I loved her one-woman musical #HonestAmy***** at Pleasance Dome, a 50-minute heart-warming and, well, honest gem, with the songs played by her on ukulele. She was so engaging performing this autobiographical material.

Daughterhood*** at Summerhall, in Paines Plough’s Roundabout Theatre, is a play about two sisters born nine years apart whose mother left home and whose father is terminally ill, but its really about their relationship. With actors playing multiple roles and scenes moving forward and back in time, it took a while to get into the rhythm of the piece, but it packed a lot of story into 80 minutes and the performances were excellent.

West End Producer*** is a bit of a Twitter phenomenon, the Banksy of theatre, permanently masked, and Free Willy, the casting of his new musical, was his first Edinburgh outing. Despite a small audience, he managed to engage us and take us with him, with participation key to the show’s success. I will be in the chorus of the show. Apparently.

Simon Evans**** wove a very personal story into his politically incorrect stand-up routine, a bit like Mark Steele’s search for his parents a few years back, and it was all the better for it, becoming very moving at the end. Surprising and rewarding.

So far good. Back at the Traverse with a 10am start again……

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Picking up steam now; my first four-show day, though it started with a couple of small exhibitions. At the National Library of Scotland, Enduring Eye featured new prints from the original negatives of the photographer in Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctica expedition, and they are extraordinary. They bring to life this amazing adventure on the other end of the Earth whilst World War One is taking place. At the University of Edinburgh Library, Highlands to Hindustan brings together items from their collection given by people returning from India; a small but fascinating collection of pictures, sculptures, books and even some video and sound footage.

Enterprise was a show I added when it got a Fringe First Award and I’m glad I did. At Assembly Studio Two, it’s a satire on corporate behaviour, featuring four men in suits in various permutations in a series of short scenes which added up to a rather accurate and very funny expose of corporate greed and ruthlessness. Back at the Traverse One, the National Theatre of Scotland’s Adam was the fascinating true story of an Egyptian refugee girl’s journey to Glasgow and to manhood, with Adam telling the story himself, with the help of another actor. The closing scene, where video clips of hundreds of people with similar stories from around the world singing ‘I am Adam’ was deeply moving. The Last Queen of Scotland overcame the handicap of being in one of the fringe’s worst venues – Underbelly, a damp, caverness, airless space without natural light – and proved to be a very original story of a Ugandan Asian woman’s childhood flight from Kampala to Dundee in 1972 when Idi Amin, himself bizarrely obsessed with Scotland, expelled them. The Dundee accent was sometimes impenetrable and the superb actor playing her was young and white, but the true story of her return to her home country and the Kent refugee camp shone through. Only time for a solo pasta today as we were all in different places with busy days, before ending with comedy – Mark Steel at Assembly Hall. Steel’s recent divorce loomed large and my companions thought him bitter, which he was, but I thought he was also bloody funny, with insightful views of what’s happening in our society to go with the personal story. One of my favourite comedians with an excellent, very personal show.

Wednesday started well back at Traverse One with a proper play called The Whip Hand – living room set, five characters, dense plotting, multi-layered – which was a touch melodramatic, but unpredictable, pleasingly inconclusive, covering a lot of personal and geo-political ground. Very satisfying. An unscheduled interlude at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery enabled me to revel in the beauty of the recently renovated main hall once more, to see their latest hanging of an extraordinary collection of contemporary portraits, to catch an interesting exhibition called Looking Good / The Male Gaze, spanning five centuries, and a more depressing one of Graham MacIndoe’s photos of his own addiction in Coming Clean. Across the road at Stand One Mark Watson gave us some work in progress, partly created from audience pre-show input. A touch lazy, a bit rambling, but it’s hard not to like his anarchic charm, an antidote to the slicker comedians. A lazy afternoon with a light lunch, a glass of wine or two and a view of the castle in the fourth floor restaurant at Harvey Nick’s was followed by more comedy, favourite Mark Thomas with his new show at Summerhall. It re-cycles two ideas, with a new spin on Manifesto (more audience pre-show input) and the biographical Bravo Figaro, but his passion and audience engagement is unrivalled, so you do leave thinking you’ve spent 70 mins with an old mate having a bit of a rant. Dinner at http://www.fieldrestaurant.co.uk was a welcome return to their simple seasonal and local food; but I struggle to understand how they survive with twenty-six covers, of which we comprised a fifth! At the international festival’s The Hub, a late night ‘cabaret’ proved a disappointment, though views amongst the group differed, with me the most negative. Meow Meow’s would have been better if she’d dropped the Little Mermaid concept / ‘show’ and delivered her normal edgy burlesque cabaret, rather than a contrived piece which was good when she sang but fell flat on it’s flipper with the embarrassing sequences in-between. It was intensely uncomfortable, physically and intellectually, and I would have walked if you could have done so quietly. The main festival trying to be as cool as the fringe and failing.

The final day was the sort of eclectic one you can probably only get in Edinburgh. It started with my 10th production of an old favourite, Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods, staged and performed in the Assembly Hall by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. I very much enjoy my outings to London’s conservatoires and I enjoyed watching future talent here just as much, in an excellent production. Odd to be at a full length fringe show after a week of pieces under 90 minutes, though. At the Fruitmarket Gallery, I rather took to Brazilian Jac Leirner‘s obsessive collection and presentation of all sorts of items – wire, rulers, spirit levels, cigarette papers – part of a very limited presentation of contemporary art this year. Cathy at Pleasance Dome was campaigning theatre, urgent and important as well as being good theatre itself. It was a new play effectively updating Ken Loach’s iconic TV play on it’s 50th anniversary, staged by Cardboard Citizens on their 25th. Like Loach’s recent film I, Daniel Blake, it puts up a mirror to modern society and in particular our approach to housing and benefits and shames us. Down in Leith, Volcano presented a riff on / deconstruction of Chekhov’s The Seagull called Seagulls in an extraordinarily atmospheric disused church. Full of surprises and, surprisingly, laughs, it was captivating if sometimes puzzling, but after processing it I realised it was quite faithful to the original, albeit with only five of the ten main characters – and a lot more entertaining! After a shaky start, seeming under rehearsed with poor sound, The Music of the Incredible String Band at the Playhouse Theatre, weaved it’s magic, bringing waves of nostalgia for 50-year-old music that is a key part of the soundtrack of my life. Eight soloists, including Mike Heron himself,  beaming in wonder, and a surprising but delightful triumvirate of ladies, opera singer Janis Kelly, folkie Karine Polwart and Barbara Dickson(!), were accompanied by seven musicians, including Heron’s daughter, a member of the McColl folk dynasty and Danny Thompson, who played on many of the original recordings. A lovely conclusion to the week.

Perhaps not up to 2015’s vintage year, but a particularly diverse one. Disappointing for art, but great for music, the Traverse on fine form and excellent food. Until 2018………

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Here we are again, for the 30-something year. This time we started with food & wine at Scotland’s Restaurant of the Year, http://www.timberyard.co, where the food was lovely, the wine list too much of a tome and the staff doing cool a touch too much aloof. Still, it’s the food that matters most and here it excelled. On to the first cultural highlight with the Philhamonia and the wonderful Edinburgh Festival Chorus under Peter Pan conductor Andrew Davies for a rare outing of Elgar’s oratorio King Olaf. Unfathomable narrative, but musically exhilarating, with three good soloists to boot. The Usher Hall crowd were a bit too restrained; they should think themselves very lucky indeed.

Our fringe started with a little gem called Jess & Joe at TraverseTwo, a growing up story with a difference, told by the characters acting out what has already happened to them. Lovely writing, beautiful performances and unpredictable. I left welled up, with a warm glow. The first art was Beyond Caravaggio at the Scottish National Gallery which I missed, intentionally because of their dreadful gallery space, at the NG in London. Here in a proper gallery, the handful of Caravaggios are wonderful, but served to show up the rest, those he influenced. On to the Book Fest for a Q&A with Dominic Dromgoole, responsible for two of the most inspirational theatrical events of my lifetime, both in the last five years – Globe to Globe, every Shakespeare play in a different language, and the Hamlet World Tour to every country in the world. Insightful, with some great anecdotes and excellent audience engagement. I queued up to get my book signed and he was just as friendly and engaging one-to-one. More art with True to Life, realistic art from the twenties and thirties, including usual suspects like Stanley Spencer and Winifred Knights, but lots new to me. Worth the schlep out to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, a place Lothian Transport seems determined to wipe off the map. Then our first comedy, Ed Byrne at Assembly George Square Theatre, who I’ve been drawn to since his recent TV travel programmes with Dara O’Briain but have never seen. Very funny, very engaging, a bit of a lag in the middle, but a treat nonetheless. Late night supper at the delightfully named http://www.angelswithbagpipes.co.uk. where excellent food combined with friendly service to great effect. A lovely first full day.

Sunday started early with something more appropriate for a late night slot, Wild Bore at TraverseOne, which the critics seem to have taken against, unsurprisingly given that they loom large. It’s three women talking out of their, well, arses, mostly quoting vitriolic reviews of their shows and others, but it evolves and changes rather a lot, and I loved the combination of subversiveness, surprise, anarchy and humour. The next show over at Stand Six couldn’t be more of a contrast – that’s the fringe for you – with poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy reading her work, and multi-brass-and woodwind-instrumentalist John Sampson chipping in. A sombre start with First World War poems, the tone lightened and it became funny and cheeky; a rarger charming hour. I rested before the day’s main event, back at the Usher Hall. Edward Gardner brought his new band, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, along with a cast of soloists to die for led by Stuart Skelton, and they took us all hostage with an extraordinary interpretation of Britten’s operatic masterpiece Peter Grimes. The usually reserved Usher Hall crowd justifiably erupted. I doubt I’ll ever hear it that good again; a highlight in a lifetime of concert-going. Emotionally drained, I needed a drink before I joined the others at http://www.mumbaimansionedinburgh.co.uk where the food was a delicious new spin on Indian cuisine, but the staff rushed and harassed us too much.

With such an extraordinary start, things had to take a bit of a dip and so it was in (full) Day Three. It started well at that Edinburgh institution, the International Photographic Exhibition, though there were a few too many contrived, overly posed shots for my taste. The day’s first theatre saw the normally reliable Paines Plough deliver a mediocre and rather pointless piece called Black Mountain in their mobile Roundabout theatre at Summerhall, about a couple seeking to rescue their relationship when his ex turns up, or does she? A mildly thrilling atmospheric thriller with cardboard performances. As my companion said, it would have been better on the radio. From here, stand-up Dominic Holland at the Voodoo Rooms lifted things significantly with the brilliantly observational, autobiographical humour of a 50–year-old who’s career has been eclipsed by his 21-year-old son. Then back to Summerhall for Graeae’s Cosmic Scallies, a somewhat slight piece about renewing an old friendship, and Skelmersdale!, which never rose to the giddy heights of their Solid Life of Sugar Water in 2015. We ended on a high with another terrific meal at http://www.lovagerestaurant.co.uk Food & wine eclipsed culture on Day Three, but there are three more full days to go……..

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I missed last year and curtailed the year before, so this is my first full week in Edinburgh for three years, which may be why I enjoyed it so much. It seemed like a vintage year, with an extraordinarily high 70% hit rate of great shows and only two bummers out of 26.

The seemingly insatiable supply of monologues continued, with seven of the 13 plays falling into this category. Despite my ambivalence, even dislike, of them, there were some real crackers, led by Sherman Cymru’s Iphigenia in Splott, an extraordinary take on Greek Tragedy with a stunning performance by Sophie Melville. Canadian genius Robert Lepage was back with another of his imaginative, innovative solo shows, this time 887 blended memories of his youth with material about memory itself. Comedian Mark Steel‘s show was, like Mark Thomas’ wonderful Bravo Figaro a few years back, a biographical story – in this case how he found out about his real parents. It was moving, poignant and very very funny. The fourth 5-star show was another flight of imagination, this time The Anomotion Show with percussionist Evelyn Glennie playing in the 17th century courtyard of George Heriot School whilst the live painting of Maria Rud was projected onto its walls. Brilliant. The final day produced not one but two gems, starting with Duncan McMillan’s extraordinarily engaging and captivating one-man play about depression, Every Brilliant Thing, brilliantly performed by Jonny Donahue, which I’ve been trying to catch for some time. Our one and only opera ended the trip with the most inventive and original Die Zauberflote from Komische Oper Berlin in collaboration with our own theatre genius’ 1927. Animation, performance and music in complete harmony.

The Traverse continued its trailblazing, hosting the National Theatre of Scotland’s Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, a rude and hugely funny play with music that followed convent school girls on a school outing (bender) to a singing competition in Edinburgh, with six very talented young actresses and a female band, directed and designed by women! and Vanishing Point’s outstanding, creative take on dementia, Tomorrow. They also hosted young Belgian company Ontroerend Goed’s latest unsettling piece, A Game of You, where I was observed, interviewed and imitated before observing myself, and leaving with a DVD of my experience! Their other two shows fared less well, with Christians, a debate about hell, hard for a non-believer to engage with (though superbly staged and performed, with a 24-piece choir) and another monologue, Crash, which was clever but didn’t captivate like some of the others.

Musical high’s included Lennon: Through A Glass Onion, which showcased his songs – sung and played by a duo – interspersed with quotes from the man himself, Antonio Forcione (again!) with his brilliant Brazilian percussionist Adriano Adewale, hugely enthusiastic five-piece accapella group Simply Soweto and Hackney Colliery Band, who weren’t at all what I was expecting (a brass band!) but whose rhythmic jazz funk was infectious late-night fun. Musical Theatre featured, with enterprising amateur productions of The Addams Family and Sunshine on Leith, neither of which have yet had London outings though both deserve them.

More solo turns, with Jim Cartwright’s Raz, about preparing for, and going out on, a night out, performed brilliantly by the playwright’s son James, contrasting with stand-up comedian Mark Watson‘s highly strung but hysterical Work In Progress. Then there was 10x10x10 where ten comedians did ten monologues written by ten other comedians – except  there were only six, as they split it into two shows, and I can’t tell you who wrote or performed them, except Jo Caulfield who did one. Not bad, though. The big disappointment was Tony’s Last Tape, where an interesting life was made deadly dull.

Other Welsh contributions included Ghost Dance, a highly creative piece of physical theatre but with a confusing narrative comparing a native American plight with a Welsh one. There was innovative use of a smart phone app for English dialogue and subtitles and more polystyrene than you’ve ever seen in one place. Not a lot to say about a rather amateur take on (part of) the folk tale The Mabinogion, except to say I blame Judith!

The Missing Hancock’s featured two lost scripts staged as if they were being recorded for radio, with occasional ad libs, by an exceptional cast. I’d enjoyed them on the radio and I enjoyed them live too. Favourite playwright Jack Thorne’s sexually explicit, harrowing but brilliant play The Solid Life of Sugar Water was another theatrical highlight with two fine performances and, unusually on the fringe outside the Traverse, a great design. Finally, a novel immersive staging of a rare Tennessee Williams play, Confessional, where you are in a seaside bar with the dysfunctional characters partaking of a beer or two with them. Not a great play, but inventively staged.

The usual diversity with higher quality this year. No doubt some will appear elsewhere, so now you know what to catch.

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