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.

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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.