Forest Fringe Digest: Part Two

A male photographer is photographing a female celebrity who is tired of being so superficial. She wants this photo shoot to show her “true self”. She wants to be “real”, and we’re all hanging out in the studio with them in Action Hero’s Wrecking Ball. Audience expectations are immediately challenged on entry when invited to grab a beer from a cooler onstage, and this boundary remains blurred for the duration. Communication is attempted between the two characters, but neither is really listening and what they say doesn’t really have any meaning, pointedly ironic in characters striving for stripped back honestly. The performance is both funny and uncomfortable as the audience watches their professional relationship cross into the manipulative personal. This is a text-based performance with imagery rich language highlighting the absurdity of their encounter, but it triggers a good amount of reflection on our own behaviour. We all carefully construct our images, particularly in social media, yet at the same time we want to be genuine (whatever that means). This is an excellent, polished piece that is provocative in subject and the actor-audience relationship.

Search Party’s My Son & Heir is without question the funniest thing I’ve seen this year in Edinburgh. Real-life couple Pete Phillips and Jodie Hawkes playfully examine the prospects of their young son, born in the same year as ‘baby Cambridge.’ The two little boys have little in common, though. Pete and Jodie share their hopes for their son in a cheerful, pink chaos that soon disintegrates into relentless judgments on their parenting methods and a stream of ‘what ifs’ capturing the anxiety and pressure to raise a perfect child. The message evokes sympathy and reflection, even from those without children. It’s an outstanding blend of comedy and social commentary on the perils of being an ordinary parent without heaps of cash to throw at your child. Their gleeful, child-like anarchy quickly turns vicious, creating pointed contrast between the haves and have-nots, but ends in a message of love. Perhaps the ending tends towards sentimental, but in a world where money is a large factor in success and a good life, it is also an ending of hope.

Last up is Christopher Brett Bailey’s This Is How We Die, a spoken word and music performance that is deceptively simple but leaves you with overloaded senses and a feeling of having traveled around the world at a million miles a second. When I first saw This Is How We Die at Battersea Arts Centre several months ago, I was so moved that I wrote two responses: an immediate visceral reaction that probably isn’t particularly well written followed by a reasoned review. I wanted to experience this piece in a smaller space, and Forest Fringe did not disappoint. Bailey’s delivery was more intimate and personal, and sitting in the front row was a full-blast experience. This piece isn’t for everyone, though. A couple of people walked out, and responses have been polarized; you either love this piece or you hate it.


The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.

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Forest Fringe Digest: Part One

As Edinburgh Festival Fringe has become more and more mainstream with success often determined by a large budget and a slot in one of the top six or so venues, truly experimental, progressive work doesn’t get as much attention anymore. Fortunately, Forest Fringe has re-calibrated the focus with a curated festival, independent of the fringe since 2007, creating a space where true experimentation is encouraged, and operating on a financial model that means all performances are free.

For two weeks, they are filling Out of the Blue Drill Hall with performance, live art, installations and other works that defy categorization. Their programme is astonishingly varied, providing a platform for emerging and established artists to present work. Forest Fringe also gives audiences a focal point rather than having to wade through thousands of shows in the fringe programme to find truly innovative work. I could happily take up residence at Forest for the duration of the festival, but have to limit my choices. Starting with Volcano’s Black Stuff and ending with Christopher Brett Bailey’s This Is How We Die, I also experience Made in China’s new show, Tonight I’m Gonna Be the New Me, Action Hero’s Wrecking Ball, Eggs Collective’s work in progress Late Night Love and Search Party’s My Son & Heir.

A walk to a “secret location” ends in a dimly lit warehouse for Volcano’s show about the effects of coal mining. It is a promenade production that literally destabilises the audience, who have to walk over a floor covered with large chunks of the black stuff. Four actors taking on roles both historical and fictitious physically capture miners’ suffering in horrific working conditions. Disappointingly, in a piece with such a focus on introducing the characters at the beginning, their individual stories are neglected in favour of the visual and aural. Some of the metaphors make sense, like the animalistic dining scene showing the reduction of the miners to baser creatures, others are less clear. I still don’t understand the incorporation of Anna Karenina and playing cricket in their pants. Black Stuff is surreal and abstract, but so much so that any message or idea trying to be communicated is almost completely lost.

Late Night Love is a sweetly nostalgic, and very funny, piece revolving around a phone-in radio show the three members of Eggs Collective listened to as teenagers. Having not grown up in the UK, I missed a lot of the cultural references, but the teenaged idealism about love and relationships is universal. Power ballads and dating conventions are gently mocked, but lovingly remembered. The two-way radios on each table are underused, but an interesting device that places the audience inside the radio show listened to in the dark. Though quite structurally loose at this point, it’s a show that speaks fondly of a specific era and development stage of teenage girls.

Made in China’s Tonight I’m Gonna Be the New Me blurs the line between truth and fiction through founders Tim Cowbury’s and Jessica Latowicki’s real-life relationship laid bare onstage. The premise is that Tim has written the show that Jess performs as Tim runs the lights and takes notes at the back. Jess dances inside a metal box wearing sequined hotpants and a halter top, an object for our delectation, and presumably Tim’s. She soon hijacks the script that descends into the two picking at each other’s faults, empowering herself as the audience are voyeurs of their argument. What is truth and what is fiction? This blurring is far more interesting to consider than the argument typical of a long-term relationship that unfolds. The made-up story of Tim’s death returns the piece solidly to fiction, again made more interesting in the idea of fantasizing about a partner’s death (we all do it!) than the story itself. I expected the content of Tonight I’m Gonna Be the New Me to be far edgier than it was, though the ideas within the performance are certainly fascinating on several levels.


The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.

Ross & Rachel, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Confession: I don’t like Friends. I find the acting two-dimensional, the jokes not funny and it bears no reflection on real life in New York City, where I spent four happy years at drama school. So I was reluctant to see MOTOR’s Ross & Rachel, because I thought it’s about the couple from Friends.

PRO TIP: Ross & Rachel doesn’t have anything to do with Friends, not really.

To boil down what this solo show featuring two characters is about feels reductive, because there’s a lot in there. Playwright James Fritz fits an entire relationship and its issues spanning many years into an hour, but it doesn’t feel crowded or rushed. This piece focusing on a middle-aged couple’s ups and downs from beginning to lonely end will speak to anyone who has ever been in a relationship. For me, the theme of a partner’s premature mortality is particularly resonant.

Molly Vevers plays both characters in this relentless, rapid-fire dialogue, deservedly earning The Stage Award for Acting Excellence in week one of the fringe. She is a captivating watch and a consummate professional, endeavoring to complete the performance after a woman in the audience fainted, right in the middle of the highly emotional end. She directly engages with the audience, personalizing this “every-couple’s” story and their need to connect with others outside themselves, particularly as one of them becomes more and more ill.

The meaning of the shallow pool Vevers first tentatively steps in is made clear towards the end, but its initial incorporation feels artificial. Director Thomas Martin otherwise does an excellent job through differentiating the two characters voiced by a single performer and maintaining audience focus with pace and energy. His casting choice is an interesting one, though. Vevers’ talent is unquestionable, but the characters she plays are middle aged. Vevers looks no older than 25. I wonder how the tone of this piece would have changed if she matched the ages of the characters.

Regardless, this is a lovely piece that plays on the audience’s emotions, without becoming overly sentimental, and gently explores their relationship with the performer in an intimate venue.


The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.

Down & Out In Paris and London, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

George Orwell’s first full-length book, Down and Out in Paris and London, documents the Eton graduate’s foray into a life of artistic poverty in the 1920’s. About 80 years later, Polly Toynbee spent a period of time living on the minimum wage in London to write her book, Hard Work: Life in Low-Pay Britain. Writer and director David Byrne (not that one), deconstructing and interweaving these two books, creates a hard-hitting new play that confronts contemporary notions of social progress by demonstrating that experiences of a life in poverty have not improved, and “the system” created to support some of society’s most vulnerable people is inherently flawed.

A finely tuned, energetic ensemble of six multi-role a huge range of characters across London and Paris; only Richard Delaney as narrator George Orwell plays one part. His character consistency is the linchpin that holds the Paris story together, countered by Carole Street’s impressively performed Polly Toynbee. Mike Aherne, Andrew Strafford-Baker and Stella Taylor play a diverse array of smaller characters spread across both time periods using accents and costume to distinguish them. There is potential for confusion what with the constantly alternating worlds, but these three actors support clarity and understanding. They are also clearly talented performers; the only downside is that they didn’t have larger roles to really sink their teeth into.

Structurally, Byrne’s script is sound with clear transitions and sufficient exposition. He skillfully avoids audience confusion despite the constant switching between the two different settings. Polly and George embark on similar character journeys, albeit with slightly differing initial aims, but end with the same deeper understanding of society’s invisible working poor. The play is narration-heavy, restricting meaningful character interactions to unsatisfying short scenes. It also can feel more like a lecture than a performance. The fragmentary nature successfully drives the message home, particularly as adjacent scenes in the different settings focus on identical topics, including the bureaucracies of job hunting, flat hunting, and work environments. The play is robust and important enough that it deserves to be lengthened, which would allow for more development of the characters and scenes that are already present. Further emphasis on the individual human lives affected by crushing poverty will also generate further gravitas and audience empathy.

Down & Out In Paris and London returns to London’s New Diorama this spring (where Byrne is artistic director). Hopefully its message will have a wide reach and move people to rally in support of the working poor, particularly in the face of the government’s promised brutal welfare cuts. Its message is a vital one backed by a good script and great performances that deserves more attention.


The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.

Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 21 August

Two radically different solo performances make up my day: a joyful, music-based reimagining of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Summerhall entitled Titania, and Total Theatre Award shortlisted physical/visual theatre piece, Oog at dancebase. Oog is the more polished and complete of the two, a non-verbal expressionist work depicting a broken soldier at the end of some unknown war, alone in a cellar. Titania is a sexy, celebratory, aural experience with audience participation that focuses on the fairies’ story.

Anna-Helena McLean uses live mixing, voice and cello performance in an impressive display of vocal dexterity to evoke the fairy kingdom. She often uses Shakespeare’s text, with spoken-word style delivery, and simultaneously creates atmosphere through sound. The effect is a rich, aural bath that can easily be absorbed with eyes closed. Rather than ethereal, this forest is earthy and sensual. McLean takes on a range of characters through fluid transitions and vocal differentiation, disregarding a narrative. More physical distinction between characters would have been welcome and in a piece entitled Titania, there isn’t as strong a focus on the fairy queen as expected.

At points McLean has the audience singing, snapping their fingers and joining her on stage. The scene where Titania seduces Bottom involves four audience members, one as Bottom and the others as fairy attendants; this scene is so sexually charged as she undoes Bottom’s shirt and strokes his chest that my rapidly-repeating inner monologue consists of, “OMG THEY’RE ALL GONNA START FUCKING”. As well as the sexual overtones, there is celebration and laughter. This piece could easily develop into a larger, club-style performance with additional actors, that seeks to create the forest through participation rather than the audience passively watching for much of the show.

Though using Shakespeare’s work as a launch pad for new styles of work is brilliant, to make a fully effective reimagining of the original, the artist must provide a clear, specific comment or interpretation on an aspect of the text. I’m not sure what McLean seeks to say about Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; there is no evident overriding message in this piece. The grounded, sexual aspect of the fairies is a starting point, but it isn’t enough. That said, Titania is a piece I wholly enjoyed, even though it needs additional development.

Oog is an entirely different beast, using fast, twitchy movements to exhibit the trauma of war experienced by soldiers. There is no speech, but the character replays happy moments from civilian life mouthing conversation, memories of battle, and intermittently gazes up the ladder leading to his freedom that he cannot bear to climb.

Like a video sped up, performer Al Seed is relentless and tense. Oog is captivating to watch with a range of movements and styles; the expressionism lends itself to a range of interpretations. His Beckettian struggle feels like he has endured it forever, and will continue to do so for time eternal. There is little that signposts him as a soldier, though. Without the programme notes, I don’t know that I would have determined the production concept.

The design is stunning. Side lighting and smoke create strong visual angles and the electronic soundtrack enhances the tension in Seed’s body and mind. His coat is huge and sculptural, a presence in and of itself. Even though the performance is only 40 minutes, it could have been shorter and still conveyed the same intensity, particularly with the cyclical nature of the piece.

These radically different one-person shows experiment with form and style, showing the possibility of character-driven, non-narrative live performance. Both have their merits and both have their flaws, and both are worth seeing for their interpretations of timeless stories.


The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.

Walking the Tightrope, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Over the course of last year, several high profile political art events were cancelled due to protests and political action. The Tricycle Theatre pulled the UK Jewish Film Festival that was part-funded by the Israeli government (then changed its decision after it was too late), Barbican art installation “Exhibit B” that depicted black people (actual people, not mannequins) in cages closed the day after it opened, and Underbelly cancelled Israeli hip-hop musical The City at the Fringe last year after its first preview. More recently, the National Youth Theatre stopped a new play, Homegrown, about Islamic extremists from opening for reasons that are still unclear. These events polarized audiences, artists and others, re-sparking the censorship debate: should art be censored? If so, under what circumstances? Should racist/offensive/morally questionable art and/or art funded by racist/offensive/morally questionable sources be censored? Producers and venues also asked themselves: how far do the protests have to go before we have to give in?

Eight, 5-minutes plays by established playwrights in response to these event cancellations, followed by a panel discussion with rotating guests, create Walking the Tightrope: The Tension Between Art and Politics. Today’s panel was Jonathan Mills (Former Director, Edinburgh International Festival), Fergus Linehan (Director, Edinburgh International Festival) and Tim Fountain (writer). A cast of four excellently performs the mini-plays; the scripts are powerful and constructively contribute to the debate, and the discussion itself can become a piece of one-off theatre once the audience is handed the microphones.

For uncomfortable shock value, Neil Labute’s two-hander Exhibit A gives us Syrus Lowe as an artist and Melissa Woodbridge as a drugged art student. As Lowe’s character performs his latest piece on a bound, moaning Woodbridge, he challenges the audience to intervene, or object that what he does is not art. Whilst what he does is awful to witness, it is equally disturbing that the audience does not respond to his challenges.

Tim Fountain’s Beyond the Fringe is a hilarious and thought-provoking family piece. The mum is a writer trying to stop the Israeli performance at Underbelly, her son is a fringe performer who is going to see the show. I find myself relating to, and laughing at, both of their perspectives, illustrating the multi-faceted complexity the issue poses.

What Are We Going To Do About Harry? is Mark Revenhill’s contribution that personalises the dilemma between maintaining funding streams from the white, middle-class and meeting diversity targets by disenfranchising these backers. This is another piece with no easy solution to the problem it poses.

Other highlights are Timberlake Wertenbaker’s satire of the BBC, Shampoo, and Re:Exhibit by Gbolahan Obisesan that stages an imaginary casting for the banned “Exhibit B.” The final play, Tickets Are Now on Sale by Caryl Churchill was an anti-climax, but still a witty look at funding sources. Another letdown was that in such a politically charged event, only two of the eight performed plays were by women.

The post-show discussion provided additional commentary and historical context to the cancellations. Jonathan Mills, former Edinburgh International Festival director, and current director Fergus Linehan explain that protests against the arts have been happening in Britain for a long time. Tim Fountain elucidates that Underbelly eventually came to the decision to cancel the Israeli show because the protests had grown to such an extent that protesters were affecting other performances and audiences in the venue.

Fountain and Mills go on to discuss the challenges faced by police and venue security, then address whether all art is inherently political: “If all art is political, it becomes agit-prop.” Art is political, but is also has other functions, such an engagement and humour. Linehan touches on funding and calls for cases to be looked at individually. Fountain discusses venues’ loyalties to their artists in the face of adversity, and then the audience has the chance to ask the panel questions.

Q1: Is there ever a place for boycott in the arts?

Q2: How can a space for discussion within the festival be created?

And, then “Q3”.

Now, what happens isn’t even a question, but a tirade that personalised last year’s protests at Underbelly. An older lady who protested The City explains that the Palestinians supported the production boycott and even though their protest was disruptive, the protesters were also treated horribly. The panel attempt to respond and placate: both sides behaved badly, we need to create a space where both artists and protesters can be heard, etc. Fountain simply states, “You won.” The woman was having none of it, tensions rise on both sides, and she walks out.

Whilst this becomes an improvised, topical performance in itself with passions and viewpoints laid bare in preparation for battle, the woman’s preface to her comment sticks with me:

She explains that she isn’t an artist, and is completely removed from the “mystical process” of making art. She is just an ordinary person.

It saddens me that the creative process is still considered some sort of abstraction by people who are somehow not considered normal citizens who do a job, trying to make a living. This singular comment proves that artists are not engaging enough with “ordinary people”. This isn’t about getting bums on seats. It’s about not engaging the wider population in the process of how art is made.

Perhaps if this lady, and the wider population of non-artists, did not feel so alienated from the creative process and artists themselves, both sides of this fight would have a greater understanding of the other. Imagine what society would be like if the general public and British government actually comprehended what was involved in making art and saw it as work rather than a “mystical process”.

Take a moment, picture that world, then decide what you’re going to do about it.


The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.

Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 17 August: Part Two

Hailing from LA, Waitless is a semi-autobiographical play about newlyweds Shelly and Trent, from the American south but living in New York. Trent works in finance and Shelly in TV production, but when Trent’s job transfers him to London, Shelly gives up her career to go with him. Told through heightened, contemporary farce with moments of sincerity, Waitless shows that the cultural gap between the UK and US is bigger than you think.

Actors Jessica Moreno and Andrew Boyle play all of the stereotyped characters, with the primary focus on Shelly’s emotional struggle and adjustment from career woman to housewife. Moreno seems to be the stronger performer here, but she has more to work with. Because they are using such a heightened performance style, moments of truthfulness are rare. A more naturalistic performance style would better serve the story’s message and give the actors meatier roles to explore, however both performers are extremely energetic and they have some lovely stand-alone scenes together.

These scenes make nice set pieces, but as a cohesive whole, the play could use a bit more substance. Shelly needs more intimate, honest moments alone with the audience when Trent is away for work to give the script a bit more weight. The ending is also abrupt and open, which doesn’t show a completed character arc. There is certainly scope for the play to be lengthened. There are heaps of jokes and references that I appreciate as an American who also relocated to the UK, but this narrows the play’s target audience down to a small demographic. It’s telling that I was the only person in the audience who chuckled at some of Shelly’s digs at British culture: British people won’t relate to her frustration, and neither will Americans who have never lived abroad. Any immigrant will be able to empathise with her situation though, at least in part.

Overall, it’s a great issue to look at onstage. Immigration is a hot topic in many countries, and the immigrant experiences in the news focuses on an entirely different demographic. Those who quietly relocate to work or study largely go unnoticed, often battling the cultural adjustment alone and unsupported. The script needs some adjustment in order to truly capture the emotional upheaval and rediscovery that comes from this momentous life change, but it is heading in the right direction.


The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.