Saturday, August 30, 2008

Edinburgh Reviews: Stewart Lee

Stewart Lee's show last year was one of the only things I tried to go see and couldn't because it was sold out, so I was pleased to be able to rectify the situation this year with a visit to The Stand, a comedy club with a much smaller capacity and profile than the Udderbelly, where Lee played last year (Lee's performing there was, apparently, a protest against the self-appointed Edinburgh Comedy Festival brand which four big venue operators created this year).

Boy, am I glad I did. Stewart Lee is easily one of the best stand-ups I've seen, and one of the best suited to what I seek in stand-up (basically, the comic has something they want to explore with the audience, and the comedy is there to make it entertaining as well as just interesting). It helps that Lee is mostly in harmony with my liberal sensibilities (go find his bit on Political Correctness on YouTube), and that he has such a fantastically dry delivery. I don't think I have ever seen someone more confident in taking as much time about what they are saying as they like; it adds so much to the performance, because the anticipation of the next line is often as funny as the payoff.

I'm not sure that the picking two of six topics each night was all that interesting for the show, but since the show was explicitly a device for Lee to workshop material for a TV series, I'm not really worried by that. I look forward to the TV series.


Edinburgh Reviews: Brendon Burns

Last year, Brendon Burns won the if.comedy award for his stand-up show after years of being at the Fringe, playing in small venues and with a reputation for being a not-very-notable shock merchant who frequently crossed the line between ironic and just wantonly offensive. Last year, he says, was a product of getting rid of his drug habit and making his show more consistently professional, and coming up with a slick, tight set. This year, he says, is "a thank-you" to the people who supported him throughout his career. Unfortunately, that seems to mean that he's slid backwards a bit; this year's show was a little bit flabby and, to me anyway, the material was nothing special. There are moments of brilliance when Burns lays into people who clearly genuinely annoy him (like broadsheet readers or French speakers in Canada), rather than simply chucking bombs into well-known areas of sensitivity like race in South Africa and the controversy over the guy who died in Barrymore's pool.

That said, those who enjoy this whole shock-comedy thing more than I do will love it.


Edinburgh Reviews: Edges

Edges is a song cycle about the slightly directionless lives of four young people trying to find themselves a life and a partner they like. The songs themselves are good, the music well written and characterful. The direction of the show was good, the lighting and sound smoothly unnoticed by most. Unfortunately, the performers in this production weren't all quite up to the standard required, particularly in their singing. One was consistently flat, another had an annoying fake vibrato that he obviously felt was "the kind of thing you need in musical theatre", another needed more control of the sheer volume of her voice, and one wasn't as bad as the others. Also, I wasn't convinced by the more gimmicky bits of the show, where video projection was used to project two brief scenes which needn't have been there at all, and a song about Facebook, which is territory that has already been well explored by other comic songs.

Not a terrible show, all in all, but the cast could have improved the show significantly by getting some singing lessons.


Edinburgh Reviews: Soweto Gospel Quoir

I'm not much of a choral music person, or a Gospel person, so I'm probably not the ideal audience for this kind of show. It's pretty amazing, but I had a few niggles that stopped me from really loving every minute in the same way that most of my friends who saw it did:

1. I don't like listening to people sing in a language I don't understand; they might be singing "burn the gays in the name of the spaghetti monster" for all I know.
2. The sound design was trying too hard - voices this good don't need smothering in that much reverb.

Still, the show is commendable in many ways, and really worth the time of even someone like me for whom it is not an obvious choice. A conscious effort has been made to break up the hour long slot, with a run of "oddball" songs and bits of dance in the middle of the show, and the enthusiasm of every single performer on the stage is infectious.


Edinburgh Reviews: Reginald D Hunter

Last year I enjoyed Reg D Hunter's show, but felt that the show wasn't quite the coherent intellectual statement that Hunter might have liked to think, and that it contained some comments that were mostly there to please an audience of shock junkies (an increasing Edinburgh Fringe demographic in comedy audiences, sadly). Both of these issues have been addressed for this year's show, leaving a man whose comedy is exactly my cup of tea: intelligent and with an intent behind it to communicate something as well as make people laugh. In this case, Hunter's show, "No Country For Grown Men" addresses the sense that men are being emasculated by today's gender politics. He begins this discussion with an anecdote about going into an empty ladies' loo to get toilet paper upon finding none in the gents, before notifying the management of the bar afterwards, only to be told that he should not have entered the ladies' in the first place. "It's not like, if a woman had walked in, I would have panicked and raped them", he complains. This sets the tone for the show: funny, but you could well take issue with it if you took it seriously. The only flaw in Hunter's set this year, I think, is that he ducks out of having a serious conversation before it has even started, with a spiel about finding people who are offended by his comedy ridiculous because obviously, if it says "comedy club" on the door, there is the distinct possibility that he was joking. This is a fair point, but you didn't find Bill Hicks using that as a way to duck out of defending his views.


Edinburgh Reviews: Jason Byrne

Byrne is an old Fringe favourite, with a mix of chat to the audience (when he frequently finds himself hilarious) and pre-written material on pretty average themes (marriage, moving house, etc). He is a very capable comedian, but the trouble is he is something of a jack of all trades. His banter with the audience is not up to the standard of, say, Ross Noble or Lucy Porter, while his material, even if you are looking for such everyday subject matters, is not on the level of any number of other comics, most notably at this year's Fringe Michael MacIntyre. His finale, getting a bunch of audience members on stage to perform their own Riverdance, is funny and has a certain maniacal quality, but can't quite escape a feeling of forced zanyness.


Edinburgh Reviews: Assassins

Stephen Sondheim's musical about the various people to have attempted (successfully or otherwise) to assassinate presidents of the USA, from John Wilkes Booth onwards, is not your average musical, with no chorus to speak of, and a subject matter that could easily make for a monotonously dark show. To make it work, the show must be intelligently performed and directed, and this production pulled it off admirably. The opening song was a little bit weak in the singing department (I thought), but the rest of the show was slick, engagingly performed, funny where it should be, and dark where it should be, culminating in a scene where the other assassins all urge Lee Harvey Oswald to go through with his attempt on JFK's life, because his act gives the rest of them context and meaning.

The show is very Sondheim musically, with songs being used to explore the minds of the assassins and their place in history, intelligently written but rarely the kind of song you come away humming. A small band did a good job, complimenting the polished performances on stage. Very little set to speak of, and a rather unambitious lighting design, meant that the show was technically unadventurous, but was at least radio miced competently.

If Kiss of the Spider Woman made me want to see someone do their show on a larger, professional scale, then Assassins made me want to go and be involved in a production of my own.


Edinburgh Reviews: WitTank - Sexy Pudding

Having seen WitTank last year in Rocket Venues (they've moved up in the world, and deservedly so), I was expecting great things of this show. And yes, it's more of the same, and some sketches are genuinely hilarious. The average level of humour, though, seems to me to be a bit lower than it was last year. And again, the funniest bits are those where the actors are trying to make each other corpse.

Still, WitTank have consistently demonstrated themselves to be a capable student sketch show, and are usually a good way to spend a light hearted hour.


Edinburgh Reviews: Kiss of the Spider Woman

This show was also in the sauna which Plague was given, but somehow I didn't mind so much here. I've never seen this musical before, so I can't comment on the cutting of the script to make it fit into its late night slot, other than to say that the show didn't feel as if it had been gutted or made no sense. The show isn't the most uplifting thing you've ever seen, but if you like musical theatre then it's a cracker nevertheless, and if you're just there for the acting, then it's pretty moving. Molina was brilliantly acted, XXXX less so (not really his fault, he just wasn't great casting for the role, and didn't really come across as rugged enough to be a revolutionary), making their relationship slightly less believable than it might have been - a shame for a show that hangs on these two actors quite so heavily.

Elsewhere, the "spider woman" had a strong voice and some strong songs to go with it, sadly undermined by a faulty radio mic on the night I saw the show (on that note, the taping of mic capsules to the faces of the actors was some of the messiest and most obvious I have seen in some time). The live band across the back of the stage left a reduced area for the actors, but were a worthwhile use of resources nonetheless, with no obviously weak playing going on, and a big energy boost to the show from their presence. The reduced stage was well dealt with by the cleverly versatile set, making the most of the limitations dealt to it (both by the lack of depth to the stage and by the obviously small budget).

The chorus of the show were generally pretty flawless, with all the supporting character parts well acted without upstaging the lead actors. That said, the chorus numbers with the prisoners singing about "over the wall" made me and my friends really want to see the show done in a big theatre with a chorus of more than six and a big, well lit set (lighting was the other technical problem with this show, often seemingly being plotted on the fly, despite being several nights into the run when I saw it).


Edinburgh Reviews: Plague! The Musical

This is a tricky review to write, since these guys were C venues colleagues of ours, and unsureness what to write here is one of the reasons I lapsed into such crapness about keeping up with these reviews. Now that the fringe is over, it seems less problematic, although I won't feel any less awkward about the thought that they might read it, but...

It was pretty ropey, really. The cast threw themselves into it for the most part, and some of them were indeed quite talented (the leading man and two leading ladies). The trouble was, the script wasn't so great, and some of the cast had those annoying little habits which really get to you after a few minutes, and a certain lack of stagecraft. The alchemist, for instance, was never onstage for more than a few seconds without doing the same quite irritating little conjuring gesture. If he was on for, say, a whole song, this meant that he did it continuously, throughout the song.

The idea of projecting a representative cartoon scene onto a screen in the absence of actual scenery was nice, but the screen being on the extreme stage right was... odd. The singers weren't miced, but that was alright because the music was from a backing track. The show was musically not bad, and some of the cast were actually fairly good singers. That said, not many of the songs were all that memorable.

The main problem, though, was that the show was just a bit long and involved. A guy goes to London and falls in love with a girl whose father is a sworn enemy of the man he gets a job with. And then something pretty indecipherable about rats happens, everyone gets the plague, the girl dies, death comes to collect her in a rather sub-Pratchett little scene, and then something else about the rats, and it's all ok. That's the basic framework, but there's a few other bits and bobs hanging off it. Essentially, there's just a bit too much. Maybe it's just that I needed the loo and the venue was literally a sauna, so I wasn't paying enough attention, but I think it's certainly fair to say that the show could be seriously improved by someone with a red pen and an unsentimental eye being given a couple of hours with the libretto.


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Edinburgh Reviews: Kiddy-Fiddler On The Roof

Interesting one this one. The attention-grabbing title is a bit cringeworthy, but once you get beyond that, there's some good stuff here. Essentially, the plot follows a disaeffected young man who accuses a teacher he is upset with of inappropriate behaviour, creating an unholy alliance between the PTA and the local press which seeks to hound him from his job.

The show is musically not memorable, but certainly competent for the most part (some seriously wayward violin playing notwithstanding), with many of the cast having average to good voices. The writing is somewhat hackneyed in places (the "nation's matriarch" character seeming so familiar it felt like she'd wandered in from about six other fictional worlds at once), but the actors give it their all, and the show is slick enough and well directed enough to, for the most part, pull it off.

The venue, Roxy Main, is not ideal for a musical as lightly mic'd as this one (the actors seemed to be wearing radio mics on their lapels, but any resultant amplification was undetectable to this sound designer), since the wide stage with audience on three sides and reverberant acoustics mean that lyrics are almost never heard by the whole audience at once. This had the bizarre effect of creating little pockets of laughter in the audience in those regions which had heard a particular joke.

And that's the other thing that should be mentioned about this show: yes, it is funny. This seemed to wrongfoot some of the people who I saw the show with, who felt that the subject matter was simply not to be made fun of. The trouble for the moral outrage brigade is that the show makes very few attempts to find fun in the subject of paedophilia. Like the 2001 Brass Eye Special before it, this show is more interested in mocking Middle England's propensity for moral panic when it is mentioned. In doing this, it is sometimes succesful, but about as often it misses the mark, because it's not at all clear what the point being made is. The show makes a half arsed attempt towards the end to have a "message", but it practically admits that it doesn't really know what it is.

So... I enjoyed the show, and I'm sure I would have enjoyed it even more if I'd been able to hear it all, and I might even have been clearer on the show's point. As it is, it's hard to pass judgment on the show. It's never going to be a classic, but it's not terrible - there are worse things around at the Fringe, by a long way.


Edinburgh Reviews: Clever Peter

Quite straightforwardly the funniest student sketch review I have ever seen. Well written, well performed, and simply very funny, this is an hour of perfectly formed comedy. It doesn't do crappy little smart-alec throwaway bits (except for when it does and they're very funny), it makes the effort to actually provide us with an over-arching little plot device and a reason for the show's name, and just when you think it's going a bit clever, a man in a gorilla costume appears and has rapes someone.

I don't really have a lot to say about this show, other than that everyone who likes sketch shows should go see it, and that I would be surprised if none of the three guys in the show go on to greater things.


Edinburgh Reviews: Nick Doody - Tour of Doody

Nick Doody

Nick Doody opens with a rather overdone little video taking the piss out of Orville and some pretty lame material about how awful crowds of drunk Englishmen are, and his delivery could be more assured. Those things said, I loved this man's stand up, once he got into it. This point came almost exactly when he launched into the material squaring up against fundamentalist Islam ("Whenever I do material about fundamentalist Christians, someone will come up to me after the show and say 'Oh, well done taking on the Christians. Easy target, aren't they? Why don't you take on the Muslims?'.. Ok then.").

His route into this subject is the Sudanese Teddy Bear Crisis, and all told this subject provides a good half of the hour long set. So it's a good job this is fertile ground. Doody is perhaps less interested in offending any particular group, more interested in the simple idea of offense. Islam is an obvious place to start, but this is broadened by the use of his own offensive teddy bear, which goes to great lengths to offend any group it can find ("Richard Dawkins touches kids!"). As such, Doody manages to avoid aligning himself with anyone he might not want to.

Some details of his set might not be top class, with the material about the surreally bastardised songs his grandmother used to sing him coming across a bit forced and overwritten-without-achieving-much. But this set has at its heart the structure of a really great standup gig, with real thematic ideas interwoven skillfully in the material. The hard work of making a satisfying stand-up set has been done here, it is simply the individual jokes which could, in places, be a little better delivered or slightly rewritten.

I'll definitely see this guy again if he's back next year.


Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Edinburgh Reviews: What's Wrong With Angry?

What's Wrong With Angry is a play that was written in 1992, with a lot of very political intent, not least directed towards section 28. Essentially the play is a love story, but since the protagonist, Steven Carter, is a gay 16 year old schoolboy, this is not as straightforward as it might be. Still less helpful is the fact that the boy he loves, John Westhead, is, as the play might put it, "confused" about his sexuality.

The actors responsible for bringing this awkward relationship to the stage are Oliver Jack and Christopher Birks, both of whom create amazingly real characters and a very believable relationship. The rest of the cast are good, but it's these two who, perhaps inevitably, shine (though a special mention goes to Charlie Deans as Linda).

The direction of the show seemed pretty good to me, able to flip seamlessly between pointing up the expressionist parts of the play with lighting and sound, and letting the drama inherent in the characters' situations play out in the more naturalist bits.

The main question I have to ask about this production, however, is why now? Section 28 was repealed several years ago (a different number of years depending on where you live). What then has prompted the play's author, Patrick Wilde, to direct a new production for the Fringe in 2008? I suspect the answer is partly "why not?". You don't need a reason to put on a piece of political theatre at the Fringe, sometimes it's just nice to see things that you won't see performed elsewhere. There are, in any case, many messages in the play which go beyond section 28, addressed both to society at large, and towards the gay "scene".

And many of these messages are valuable. Often the character of Simon Hutton, a gay teacher at Steven's school, is used as a seemingly obvious channel for the author's thoughts, urging the scene to "forget about the sex, concentrate on the love", or somesuch, if it is to win mainstream acceptance. These sections are worthwhile, but a spiel from the same character about the evils of section 28 falls a bit flat. At the time the play was written, I could see this having a place in the play, but today, it comes across as rather too earnest and preachy, especially when the Fringe audience who see the play are all going to be pretty enlightened types anyway, and something of an anachronism - too much is made of it to feel like a simple period detail.

Still, it's easy to overdo the political aspects of this show, and overlook the heart of it, the point of which is the wholly nonpolitical nature of what it depicts: a love story. In portraying this, and in making a few broader points, the show is highly succesful, even if it probably has lost much of the directly political bite that it might once have had.


Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Edinburgh Reviews: The Great American Trailer Park Musical

The Great American Trailer Park Musical

So we chose this as the first show to see in Edinburgh this year on account of how it's free with our C venues passes and it's a direct competitor of ours. Perhaps not a great choice of first show to see, since it proved a pretty daunting glimpse of the competition. We have consoled ourselves with the knowledge that this show has been running on off-Broadway in the US for three years now, and the current cast have been doing it for, if not quite that long, then much longer than we've been doing our show.

Trailer Park tells the story of Norbert, a tollbooth collector, Jeannie, his agoraphobic wife (who hasn't left her trailer since their baby was snatched 20 years ago - cue ridiculously coincidental plot development towards the end, though to be fair not the one I was expecting), and Pippi, a young stripper who moves to the trailer park to run from her ex-boyfriend Duke, and promptly has an affair with Norbert.

Basically, that's it for plot, which leads me to the basic problem I had with this show (well I might as well do the whinges first): monotony. The plot has only one real strand to it: the love triangle between the aforementioned three characters (plus Duke towards the end). As comic relief, we get a few more characters: Betty, Pickles and Lin. These three are, however, glorified narrators for the main plotline, and therefore their arrival is not necessarily accompanied by a narrative change of scene. Consequently, if one gets bored of the main plot, there's not much respite.

The plot isn't the only thing that's a little bit one-tone about the show. The singing is incredibly impressive, without exception the cast have amazing voices and I can only marvel at their ability to pull out performances like this on a nightly basis. It is fair to say, however, that there isn't a great deal of range in the musical style of the show. The result, as one friend remarked, was the impression that "they all had degrees in musical theatre from the University of Belting". If you aren't particularly impressed by this style of singing, this isn't going to appeal to you much.

As a sound designer, I can't finish my gripes without a mention of that old chestnut, the Not Muting Radio Mics When The Actor Is Offstage Problem. And whilst I can appreciate that the show is pretty full-on, the reverb on the mics even during spoken dialogue seemed a bit much. Of course, we saw them pretty early on, this may have changed by now.

Anyway, gripes over. Oh, and here's an anti-gripe. I would like to dispute most vigorously the review in Three Weeks which rather snottily accuses anyone who laughs at the show of "laughing at people for being poor and uneducated". This is one of those criticisms that somewhat misses the point of the show, which pretty wholeheartedly celebrates the characters it shows us. About the only particularly cruel laughter in it is directed towards one character for being unintelligent, but that's a feature of most comedy ever made, so I'm not going to start laying into Trailer Park for that.

What is indisputably great about this musical is the acting. The three narrators in particular are a masterclass in characterisation, with never a moment on stage when they weren't completely and convincingly in character. On second thoughts, though, I don't want to single them out too much, because the cast are universally impressive, their characters just happen to be absolute gifts. The music is well written and some of the numbers are genuinely memorable (more than can be said for some big hit musicals). The book is full of snappy, convincing dialogue, and the show is frequently laugh out loud funny. The set and costume design is effective, the lighting pretty straightforward but evocative, picking up where the set leaves off for those scenes set outside the trailer park.

This is a very slick and polished production that the team behind it have every reason to be very proud of. I'm just not sure the basic underlying plot framework is quite right.


Edinburgh Reviews: First the Obligatory Plug

I'm here with Hero, it's a new musical written and performed entirely by Cambridge students, and it's ace. If any of you are in Edinburgh in the next couple of weeks, I hope to see you there (C venues, 3.45pm, every day).

Edinburgh Reviews '08: Intro

So it's that time of year again, when every broadsheet but the Telegraph get terribly excited about the Edinburgh Festival.

In accordance, I will, like last year, be turning this blog into my own personal record of what stuff I've seen, and what I thought of it.

If you don't really care about the fringe and all the guffstorm that surrounds it, then... see you in September.