Beowulf, Battersea Arts Centre

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by Laura Kressly

Stories always have monsters. They may not be literal monsters, but anything that’s scary, or an obstacle, or destabilising, or otherwise threatens the story’s hero.

Stories also always have choices. Usually a lot of them, made by the hero, that determine his or her fate.

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Lists for the End of the World, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Things that are good about Lists for the End of the World

1. It’s funny, sad and moving all at once
2. Though the concept is simple, it’s structurally dynamic
3. It makes you laugh and think at the same time
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Disconnect, Ugly Duck

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Imagine a production of Waiting for Godot with more characters, set in space, where the audience chooses the outcome of the story. What you are picturing is probably gloriously weird and kitschy. But now add clumsy dialogue, some poor performances and a loosely applied Brexit analogy, performed on a set that looks like it’s built of cardboard and/or they ran out of paint. If your mind’s eye makes a different picture now, it be more accurate.

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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.

A Fool’s Paradise, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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“Americans can’t do Shakespeare,” joke the five women from A Fool’s Paradise.

The self-deprecating, all-female company of players from Baltimore boot that myth out of the theatre with relish. Having learnt 45 scenes, speeches and moments from Shakespeare’s cannon, they promise to perform 30 of them in 60 minutes or else one of the actors gets a pie in the face.

In this delightfully raucous hour, the audience chooses what the actors perform from a bingo card that adds play to their autonomy, and they’re encouraged to take photos as well. The performances are a mix of styles, from emotionally committed and realistic through to outrageous slapstick. Some stick to Shakespeare’s text, some eschew it all together. Some use audience volunteers, some use props. The range is reminiscent of variety, vaudeville and US-style improvisation shows, creating a wonderful mix of theatrical traditions. It’s part-game show and part-celebration of Shakespeare teetering on the edge of total chaos. The atmosphere becomes wonderfully Elizabethan, with the actor/audience and actor/character boundaries heavily blurred.

Kids get involved in order to fill their bingo cards and win sweets, adults are swept away by playful joy. The performers’ response rate is lightening fast and each of them plays about a dozen or so roles. It’s a fantastic display of improvisation, multi-rolling, ensemble and physical skill, and the company are warm and charismatic, sharing enthusiasm rather than alienating through an acrobatic display of Shakespeare knowledge. The material isn’t all from his most popular plays, either – they include histories and the late romances though not all of the scenes include context, which makes it a challenge for even the most Shakespeare-familiar to keep up.

It’s a shame they aren’t here for the whole festival as it promises to be different each night and the exuberance of the company is a delightful celebration of Shakespeare’s greatest moments.

A Fool’s Paradise runs through 12th 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.

The Inevitable Heartbreak of Gavin Plimsole, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Gavin Plimsole is a good enough guy. A bit geeky and nervous but well-meaning, maybe even a bit endearing if you like that sort of thing. After he receives a life-altering diagnosis from the cardiologist and realises his days are numbered, the audience (who have all strapped into heart monitors before the show begins), get to decide his fate. Part choose-your-own adventure, part poignant tale of grief morning people and times long lost, The Inevitable Heartbreak of Gavin Plimsole is a messy but touching reminder to make the most of every moment.

An ever-present projection of the audience members heartbeats overlays three energetic performers and a changing landscape of cardboard boxes. Gavin’s the sort that stores his life in tattered boxes labelled with masking tape, and these boxes now contain relics from his life. They aren’t particularly interesting, but a garden shed with a wonderful contraption that releases a large marble down a slide and into a box every 500 collective heartbeats, is ramshackle but dynamic. It cleverly represents our perpetual approach towards death with a drawn out clattering and eventual silence – a dying person’s last breaths.

Gavin monologues most of his thoughts; there are some interruptions by spunky, supporting actors that help break up the speeches but more of these would be welcome. A wiry (literally, as in made of wires) puppet makes one appearance and is similarly underused – a remarkable creature! The structure is understandable chaos that mirrors the the first couple of days after devastating news, though clearer transitions and a distinct style will help make sense of this emotional journey.

The use of the heart monitors and audience interaction unites the audience and performers, creating intimacy and empathy. It’s a sad story that manages to foster hope instead of gloom, and within the clutter there’s a lot of heart.

The Inevitable Heartbreak of Gavin Plimsole 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.

One Under, Vault Festival

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Amy Fleming’s dad committed suicide when she was four years old. Fleming struggles with mood swings and wonders if she’s “mental,” like her dad. Luckily, she studied Molecular Medicine before becoming an actor so she understands how genetics dictates our characteristics. She also knows that talking about our problems and developing positive habits helps us overcome them. Combining her science and performance backgrounds, Fleming’s One Under is part conversational lecture, part interactive game. She relies on narration, humour and audience involvement to share her message, but the piece as a whole feels unfinished. It’s a nice idea, but it lacks theatricality and detail.

There’s no character, just Fleming and her generally cheerful honesty. She relaxes the audience straight away and easily facilitates discussion. After a frank introduction about her childhood and how genes are passed from parents to child; there’s some framing by her biography and a multi-round game/quiz with easily answerable mental health questions. These two elements aren’t solidly connected to each other, and the piece’s message isn’t spelled out until the very end. Structurally, it’s weak. By that point though, the message is less interesting that the journey we took to get there and the camaraderie that emerges en route.

This solo show isn’t very theatrical, but it’s lovely for its warm cuddliness and playful approach to form. Fleming is clearly passionate about helping people improve their quality of life and their mental health, which is a commendable mission. Her openness and her anti-performance make me feel uncomfortable writing any sort of negative judgement – it’s such a personal piece. But at an hour long, glossing over parts of her past with some audience debate over quiz questions about how to approach mental health issues at work, there’s a noticeable lack of depth.

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.