Electric Eden, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Tommy Eden, a pensioner with a love for street performing since he retired, is dead. Local entrepreneur Alexander Sheldon’s security guards are responsible. Sheldon didn’t like Tommy performing outside his high end spa and leisure centre, but when the guards manhandled him off his patch, Tommy’s 87-year-old body couldn’t take it. Local young people, angry at the rapid gentrification of their town and the death of a local treasure, organise a protest/party in the abandoned club across the road, and everyone’s invited.

Not Too Tame’s Electric Eden doesn’t manage to deliver much of a party, though. Shouty political slogans and several under-developed subplots give a vague picture of a bigger problem, and staging choices fight against the attempted audience immersion. The concept promises a dynamic execution, but the delivery disappoints.

Seven characters at the party are featured, including organiser Greg (Andrew Butler) and Tommy Eden’s granddaughter, Grace (Louise Haggerty). Their stories, as well as those of the other five characters, are gradually presented through disconnected scenes in between dance numbers and party games. The audience are sometimes invited to join the dancing, other songs are tightly choreographed.

An exposition of protest rhetoric delivered down a mic, petition signing and ordering drinks from the bar is too long. Each of the characters’ individual stories only gets a couple of scenes, so they come across as generic snapshots of character types rather than real people.

The audience are provided with chairs so even though director Jimmy Fairhurst wants to create a party atmosphere, inevitably the majority of the audience end up sitting and watching for the entire performance. Choosing a club as a venue adds little with such a clear distinction between the actors and the audience, and the continuous reiteration that this is a party comes across as forced and false.

The performances are fine and there’s some tight choreography, though this also feels out of place with the attempts to create an anarchic/punk atmosphere. Electric Eden tries to be both a genuine party and a play, but the two aesthetics are so diametrically opposed that neither ends up working within the piece.

The whole experience is frustratingly flat, though it shows such promise on paper. With a script overhaul and a clear vision as to what Electric Eden wants to achieve, it would be a stronger piece. As is, it comes across as a confused and undeveloped piece.

Electric Eden runs through 29th August.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Mule, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Orla and her sister are close. Even when Orla decided to move from their small Irish town to Ibiza for a summer of working and partying, they still texted everyday. After a sudden cessation in her messages and silence that stretches to ten days, her family starts to worry. A social media campaign turns up a few dead ends and the police are about to launch a full investigation when there’s a phone call.

It’s Orla. She’s in jail with another young woman called Shannon. In Lima.

Based on the real-life Peru Two, Mule fictionalises the pair of young women arrested for drug trafficking in 2013. Using two actors to play all the roles, Mule centres on Orla’s story. A sweet, young woman with little life experience who trusts too easily and struggles to say no, she gets swept up into the Ibiza culture and when she loses her job, she makes some terrible choices. This pacy script by Kat Woods gives a fairly well-rounded picture of the women’s circumstances, but the execution is so rushed that the story is hard to follow.

Scenes are short and snappy, lending an urgency and tension to the story. There are some unexplained gaps in the plot, though – like how they got this job to begin with. Orla and Shannon plan their coverup story early on, but the objective truth is never discussed. Constant character changes give a wide perspective on the story, but the use of voice and physicality as sole signifier of character at the speed and length they maintain isn’t always enough. By the time it becomes clear which character is talking, they have already moved onto another.

Mule is more of a narrative character study than a deeper exploration a chain of events where objective truth is clearly defined. Though the story has a lot packed in – including prison conditions, exploitation, drug use and gender disparity – none of them are fully explored. It has the feel of a documentary, but the character of Orla is the only consistent thread.

It’s a story that has plenty of potential for exploration, but Mule doesn’t go far enough or takes a strong angle, nor does it give enough detail to deem it documentary theatre. The actors’ performances are good and there are some excellent scenes, but Mule feels like it still a work in progress.

Mule runs through 29th August.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged), Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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When I was a teenager, I discovered the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). My love for Shakespeare had already started to grow, and I thought the script was brilliantly funny and clever. I never saw a professional production of it, or any of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s subsequent plays, until their newest, William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (Abridged).

I found it hugely disappointing. The humour I found so witty and topical in the mid-90s, though updated, is bound in hackneyed and punny dialogue. The lack of fourth wall is great, but the panto-esque delivery feels cheesy, dated and over long. The script is fine in concept, but its execution is muddy. My tastes have clearly changed over the last twenty years and the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s work is no longer has the impact it once did.

However, the packed house laugh plenty so their style and concept are clearly still popular. Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor’s play is a mashup of most, if not all, of Shakespeare’s plays in one. Found in a Leicester carpark with a pile of bones, this is the never before seen script where Shakespeare tries to fit all his ideas in one in a totally nonsensical story.

Martin, Tichenor and Teddy Spencer are the three performers who play all roles. Their quick changes and timing are most impressive, though they rely on stale stereotypes and basic jokes to generate characters. Ariel from The Tempest becomes the mermaid, a handful of characters are inexplicably gay, and there’s even a joke about Viagra. (Are Viagra jokes even funny anymore?)

The show and the company are still popular after all these years, in spite of shallow, unsophisticated humour. Though the format clearly has staying power and wide appeal, it’s distinctive style in one for those with a penchant for comedy.

William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) runs through 29th August, then tours.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Be Prepared, JOAN, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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This year, four companies are receiving support from Underbelly to produce and market their latest work. Two of those are Milk Presents and Corner Shop Events, both offering solo performances but radically different in content and style. Each distinctive piece is vibrant and immediate, with moments of power and poignancy. Typical of new work at the fringe, both feel a bit rough and ready but they have a raw, honest emotionality that plucks the heartstrings.

Be Prepared transports the audience to a Quaker funeral for Mr Matthew Chambers, where a man who never actually met him has been invited to speak. Struggling with his own grief, writer/performer Ian Bonar takes on the awkward, unprepared man reduced to a child by his inner turmoil. The character’s biography interweaves with his unconventional encounters with Mr Chambers, spinning a muddled web of good intention that is sweetly moving and honest.

Bonar’s performance is excellent. There’s a simmering anxiety that drives him forward and erupts through the characters ideas that aren’t particularly well-thought through. His underlying focus on his father’s recent death is a constant presence that bubbles through his attempts to talk about Mr Chambers. His pace becomes more frenetic as his stories become increasingly muddled, though this textual choice occasionally interferes with understanding. The script has a seeping rawness that effectively captures the chaos of grief, though there are numerous loose ends that aren’t fully developed.

JOAN addresses rather different themes but has just as much intensity as Be Prepared. This modern Joan of Arc story resonates through it’s father/daughter relationship, and teenaged optimism and arrogance that backfires despite her intentions to save France. Her struggle with gender identity also gets hold of the audience’s empathy and doesn’t release its grip until the curtain call.

Lucy Jane Parkinson’s performance is exquisite. Joan’s hope, determination in the face of adversity and ultimate desperation is skilfully crafted by writer Lucy J Skilbeck. Parkinson fully embodies Joan’s emotional journey and has the audience in the palm of her hand from her initial impersonation of her father, to her final pleas for Saint Catherine’s help.

Though there is an element of drag in the show when Parkinson plays other characters, her depiction of Joan doesn’t come across as drag at all. The character is not sent up, and her struggle with taking on female behaviour and dress is wholly genuine.

Though JOAN is the stronger production of the two, Be Prepared is still a solid production with plenty of merit. Both are moving reflections of aspects of the human condition and powerful pieces of theatre in their own right.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Lucy, Lucy and Lucy Barfield, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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The dedication at the front of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe reads:

My Dear Lucy,

I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say but I shall still be, your affectionate Godfather,

C. S. Lewis.

Lucy Grace, long feeling a strong kinship with the book’s protagonist Lucy Pevensie, clung onto the belief in Narnia well into adulthood. When she was 26, the dawning realisation that she would never reach Narnia suddenly hit her. With a sense of crushing loss, she turned to her well-thumbed copy of the book to search for clues that might refresh her once-dependable escape from life’s hardships. Previously skipped pages were poured over for clues, leading to the discovery of the book’s dedication – a revelatory moment for Lucy Grace. There’s a real Lucy! Perhaps she knows more about Narnia and can help her rediscover its wonder as an adult! But who is she?

Lucy, Lucy and Lucy Barfield sweetly documents Grace’s search for the real Lucy, about whom there is little information. This quest leads her down the rabbit hole of contacting Lucy’s father’s estate, researching at the Bodleian Library and interviewing Lucy’s best friend. A research project doesn’t sound like it would make dynamic, compelling theatre, but Grace manages to do so with great success on this solo show.

Grace’s performance is excellent. She has a gleeful charisma and innate sense for storytelling that keeps the audience’s attention. Her childlike wonder at each discovery is infectious. Hints of her background and struggle come through somewhat, though the script is far from self-indulgent.The design, mostly piles of cardboard boxes, lacks the delicacy of the story even though they allude to the archives Grace trawls through searching for details about Lucy’s life.

Lucy Barfield died in 2003 from MS. There is still some mystery around her life, and some of Grace’s findings directly conflict each other. But the creative young woman who danced, wrote poetry and music who inspired one of the country’s greatest writers and academics helps Lucy Grace renew her belief. Lucy, Lucy and Lucy Barfield is a lovely little story of adventure and discovery.

Lucy, Lucy and Lucy Barfield runs through 29th August.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

People of the Eye, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Elizabeth has two daughters. Her youngest is “fine”. Her eldest has profound hearing loss. This diagnosis, in our able-bodied world with all its bias and privilege for those that are “normal”, is a hard one to take. Elizabeth wrestles with guilt, frustration and the never before considered world of adaptation to suit her daughter’s needs.

Theatre maker and actor Erin Siobhan Hutching grew up in a mixed D/deaf and hearing household. Collaborating with the Deaf & Hearing Ensemble, People of the Eye is her story, and those of families everywhere. It tells of parents, siblings, signing and secret languages. Projections and signing facilitates aid accessibility and support storytelling, creating a heartwarming montage of moments. The story is thin, but the message is clear: living in both the D/deaf and hearing world is a blessing.

Emily Howlett performs with Hutching as Elizabeth’s eldest. She signs as well as speaks and takes on several roles: a doctor, a sign language teacher and one of the two central characters. She and Hutching have a lovely chemistry and are generally believable as young siblings. Hutching also switches between Elizabeth and her younger daughter; these transitions are not always clear.

There is an added pedagogic element of Elizabeth taking a sign language class where the audience becomes the rest of the class. Though good fun, it is slightly forced – the story of this family is much more engaging than a lesson.

People of the Eye could certainly do with fleshing out, and its initial premise and structure are robust enough to withstand further development. The performances are engaging and they provide a lovely insight into family life with a disabled family member. The visual structure is a model for other productions seeking to increase their accessibility and can easily be applied to shows where deafness is not specific to the script. It’s a fantastic start with great potential.

People of the Eye runs through 27th August.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Counting Sheep, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Just over two years ago, a revolution in Kiev ushered in the downfall of the Ukranian government. Protests against the government’s refusal to sign pro-EU legislation lasting months had several violent outbursts that saw hundred of people injured and 780 killed. Toronto-based Ukrainian musician Marichka Kudriavtseva, in Kiev for work at the time, joined the protesters where she met Mark Marczyk, also based in Canada.

When the two returned from the Ukraine, they teamed up with Marczyk’s Lemon Bucket Orkestra to create Counting Sheep, an immersive “guerrilla folk opera”. A celebration of solidarity and the power of a collective voice, it also mourns those who died in the protests. Told from the perspective of the protesters, little is shared from the other side – but this rallying performance is fitting homage to not just the Ukranian protesters, but those fighting government tyranny around the world.

Some audience sit around a huge table, whilst others sit on the sides of the space and still others up in a balcony. Klezmer or folk music is playing as the audience enters; there is a convivial atmosphere as the show formally starts. This is a party, or a wedding, or some other huge gathering, until the three screens display news reports of riots and police enter. The tone abruptly shifts, and the world that has been established is dismantled. It’s a wonderful, unsettling surprise.

The space is consistently reformed and redrawn using movement, and the audience is physically moved in the wake of the protesters’ gains and losses. They are willing and unquestioning, the sheep of the title. Though the numbers here obviously pale to those at the actual protest, but incorporating the audience in acts such a building barricades and lobbing bricks at police fosters unity from disparate dozens. There is a hint of the solidarity and aggression found in protests, and joy and celebration from the audience who are keen to play. Being served food is also an important enabler that solidifies the unity the show aims to create.

Counting Sheep is hugely effective in its emotional manipulation, and also it’s storytelling through music, movement and projections. Choosing sheep as a metaphor is a curious choice, though. The benign but rather dumb livestock aren’t known for thinking for themselves and are susceptible to herding – otherwise, they wander around unproductively, getting lost and eaten by predators. Whilst the performers are the herders here, they are also in sheep masks, unempowered. Who then are the herders? The government? Unseen forces of political and social unrest? Whatever it is, us human beings are hugely susceptible to it when motivated enough, even if the metaphor isn’t totally clear.

Though sung completely in Ukranian, there is a clear storyline conveyed through projections and movement. There is little nuance in this piece, but it a playground for the sweeping emotions of popular theatre. It provides at least a hint of the experience that the Ukranian protesters endured, and powerfully unites the audience through the humanity of collective experience for a common goal. An excellent piece of theatre.

Counting Sheep runs through 29th August.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.