Life According to Saki, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Author Hector Hugh Munro, otherwise known as Saki, is in WWI’s trenches. He and his men been out there for nearly a year, and they are long fed up with life on the front. To entertain his fellow troops, he tells the stories that have already made him a well-known writer. Life According to Saki mixes biography and fiction as Saki tells the audience about his life, interspersed with silly and bizarre anecdotes. The cast of six play both soldiers and the character’s in Saki’s stories with fantastic energy and physical commitment, but the structure of the play and Saki’s pontificating soon grows repetitive. An excessively long ending and too many stories ushers in eventual tedium despite a polished show with high production values.

Anna Lewis’ design is excellent; it clearly indicates the trenches and is flexible for the imagined worlds elsewhere. Costumes are WWI uniforms that fit the cast of women and men smartly – they are not frumpy, unaltered hire costumes. The puppets by Claire Roi Harvey and Suzi Battersby are also very good, with the cock being particularly charming with a great range of realistic movement.

The script is where it begins to fall flat a few stories in. Each one is very short, some only a few minutes long. There are about eight or ten altogether, and the constant shift from tale to tale is exhausting. The are performed with great physical comedy, accents and verge on the fantastical; each one is lovely but there are way too many. Episodes from Saki’s life are bland and dry filler, and the two styles feel forced to miserably cohabit in the same structure. The tacked-on conclusion preaches about how to live one’s life, then drags on even longer into a song and a poem. Though it blatantly states its message of living life to its fullest, the connection to the hour of stories preceding it is tenuous.

Three or four longer stories with depth and detail, and less of Saki’s biography (if any at all) would make this a much more engaging play. The premise of a soldier entertaining his troops is a fine one, but The Life of Saki comes across as self-centred and lecture-y with some silly, disconnected interludes.

Life According to Saki 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.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Tang Xianu and Shakespeare were writing about similar themes at the same time, on opposite sides of the world but never met. Teaming up to create a cross cultural performance, Leeds University and International Business and Economics University (UIBE) in China each took a play from each other’s culture and created a new play inspired by the foreign text. Inspired by the Chinese legend of Sophora, a spirit of the woods associated with visions and dreams, UIBE chose A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Adding multiple levels of reinterpretation, they swap the lovers’ genders and who fancies who in order to comment on gender roles in China and the pressures young people face. Performed in English, the students struggle to connect to the emotion behind the words but their adaptation is a complex and clever commentary on relationships and social expectations.

The Sophora Nest Hotel, run by three nameless staff members with otherworldly powers, is an escape from university studies for glamorous young couple Lysander and Hermia. They are followed by their friend Helena, who’s in love with Lysander, and Helena brings along Demetrius, the geeky, shy boy who will do anything for her. Helena is blind to his love, and instead uses him more as servant than a friend. Mostly in contemporary language, the lovers’ plot thread from the original unfolds but rather than the boys being drugged, its the girls, who then both fall in love with Demetrius. Lysander, who orders Hermia around to no end, needs to learn to not take advantage of her. Helena needs to do the same with her devoted sidekick.

All the chopping and changing from the original is wonderfully refreshing, and effectively communicates our need to open our eyes to those right in front of us rather than focusing on our own wants. Other themes emerge as well, particularly the pressure on women that results from being under their father’s thumb, then their husband’s. All four characters also have the drive to be the sexiest, cleverest and have the fanciest gadgets. Though China is so far away, it’s both comforting and disconcerting that young people feel this the world over.

The three hotel staff add a lovely dynamic. One is purely logical and analyses the hotel guests’ behaviour. A second wants to play tricks, and the third tries to maintain harmony between the first two. The emphasis on balance between this trio and the lovers feels distinctly eastern, and one worth worth considering in the west.

Though still maintaining an amount of student-level execution, the insight these Chinese young people provide through their script is provocative, relevant and culturally eye-opening.

A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming runs through 13th 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.

Swansong and Road to Huntsville, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Though climate change has long been a problem, political theatre often ignores it. DugOut’s Swansong faces the issue head on, placing four survivors of a global flood in a swan pedalo. A capella songs and situation comedy bring plenty of joy and laughter to the boat, but the enormity of their survival and uncertain future weighs heavy. Will they find land, or will they kill each other first?

Like the start of a joke, hippy vegan Bobby, posh boy Steven, gym bunny Claire and nihilist Adam are on a boat, and have been for at least a little while now. They’ve already worked out exactly how to wind each other up, which generates the comedy that keeps Sadie Spencer and Tom Black’s script from becoming too heavy. The lightness contrasting the serious of their post-apocalyptic waterworld tips more towards comedy, but the balance mostly works. As they make plans for rebuilding the world to the vision they are creating from scratch in Bobby’s journal (obviously with plenty of arguments), there’s a natural progression towards eventuality – will they find land and survive, or will they all die on the pedalo?

The characters are rather stereotypical for the sake of comedy; despite this there are some poignant moments of understanding and empathy. They are effectively performed but somewhat lacking in depth, though sung interludes between scenes and the resolution help negate this unsatisfaction.

This spirited production is a relief from more sombre approaches to political issues, and a good laugh at that despite its shortcomings. Road to Huntsville is an entirely different beast, though the topic is just as infrequent on British stages. Theatre maker Stephanie Ridings stumbles across a documentary about women who fall in love with prisoners on America’s death rows. Thinking this could be the start of a new play, she latches onto the subject and delves into a world that she doesn’t understand, but doesn’t want to judge. As her research leads her further down the rabbit hole, she emerges in the “death penality capital” of the country, Huntsville, Texas.

Road to Huntsville shares Ridings’ process and turns it into a story of itself. More of a documentary, there are no preconceptions – we are in a theatre to hear about her findings. The curious but emotionally detached beginning takes its time to cave into emotional connection with the people she meets who are at the mercy of a state sanctioned killing machine. This show is a slow burner, but by the end, her passion and rage against the death penalty rally the audience to her side. Her frustrated helplessness hangs heavily in the air as she tries to return to normal life, then she does the same to us, sending us out into the busy joy of Summerhall. Though it makes for melancholy, lingering reflection, Ridings’ reminder that not everyone has the privilege of living in a country where the government won’t kill you if you commit a crime.

Swansong runs through 29th August, Road to Huntsville runs through 28th 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.