Miss Nightingale, The Vaults

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By guest critic Alistair Wilkinson

Fly to the front line. Sing some songs. Win the war. Live happily ever after. Sounds easy, right? That’s the idyllic goal that two queers, an unmarried mother and an unborn child feel in Matthew Bugg’s dreamy production of Miss Nightingale. This gorgeous depiction of 1940’s Britain hits you right in the feels and pulls on all heartstrings. The set provides an intimate cabaret club vibe, decorated with posters stating memorable lines from the wonderful songs that are performed throughout.

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The Mutant Man, Space Arts Centre

315_The Mutant Man @ The Space. Photo by Greg Goodale

By guest reviewer Maeve Campbell

Contemporary pop culture is awash with true crime stories: NPR’s Serial, HBO’s The Jinx and Netflix’s Making of a Murder are just a few titles that have recently gripped public imagination. It is therefore not surprising that two plays about the life of Harry Crawford, born Eugenia Falleni in 1875, have been dramatised in the last few years. The Trouble with Harry by Lachlan Philpot played in Melbourne in 2014 and now Christopher Bryant’s The Mutant Man comes to the Space Arts Centre.
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The HIV Monologues, Ace Hotel

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By guest critic Jo Trainor

Diagnosis, dread, death, devotion, Patrick Cash has written five interlocking, thoughtful monologues that explore HIV from the most human perspective.

Alex isn’t wearing his power bottom singlet, but his James Dean swagger and Nick’s beautiful eyes are the making of a dream Tinder date. Until Nick reveals he’s HIV positive. Alex legs it, but his audition for Barney the next day forces him to re-evaluate his behaviour.

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Assisted Suicide: The Musical, Royal Festival Hall

It’s uncomfortable to watch a play that conflicts with your politics or world view, and Liz Carr’s Assisted Suicide: The Musical does just that. The gay actor and comedian aligns with cuddly liberal ideology other than her avowed opposition to legalising assisted suicide in the UK. As a disabled woman, she worries that disabled people will consequently feel pressured to end their lives so they are no longer burdens on their loved ones, especially as many non-disabled people flippantly comment how hard their lives must be. After all, if you’re told the same thing over and over again, it’s too easy to start believing it.

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Love, Lies and Taxidermy and Scorch, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

First loves: awkward, hormonal milestones of young adulthood that make you feel like you’re on top of the world in a bubble that’s just the two of you. That is, unless you’re a trans or gender fluid teen who is still exploring gender identity, or someone with extensive family problems. But issues like these, when married with a youthful story of falling in love, make for some powerful and moving theatre.

Love, Lies and Taxidermy compares falling in love for the first time to living in a film. With narration incorporating stage directions, short scenes reminiscent of quick cuts and a wonderfully ridiculous conclusion, the play feels like a teen romcom, but has enough substance to ensure it isn’t total frivolity. It’s fluffy, sweet and addresses how social class can effect young love.

Set in Myrthyr Tydfil where all road lead to Tesco, Ash and Valentine meet at hospital when they’re both waiting to see if they qualify for paid medical trials. Ash’s dad is on the verge of bankruptcy, and Val’s parents are separated so he wants to send them on a cruise in hope they will fall in love again. The tentatively begin dating, but life has a way of interfering with their time together. Ash has other ideas to earn some quick cash courtesy of an aspiring filmmaker college mate, but devoted Val vehemently opposes them. Cue a mad dash adventure to rescue Ash from her poor choices and live happily ever after.

There are a few lose ends in the narrative that get forgotten in favour of the “boy rescues girl” plot line, like Val’s quest for money for his parents. They could easily be trimmed to get to the point faster, or developed further to make a more fully-formed story.

The cast of three display remarkable energy as they play all the roles. Remy Beasley and Andy Rush are Ash and Val, the young couple who clearly fancy the pants off each other. Rush, though the hero, goes against the stereotypical popular lad who wins the girl through violence and strength. Awkward and geeky, his devotion to the bold and brassy Beasley is utterly adorable. Beasley’s confidence also goes against the romcom trope; she most definitely does not want to be rescued even though she doesn’t want to make the money in the way she has chosen.

The ending, however unrealistic, charms and delights. Though there is no set to portray the described splendour, the text more than makes up for its absence. The intimacy of the Roundabout suits this play well, though a larger venue would give more scope for design.

Scorch takes a different tone from Love, Lies and Taxidermy, though it also has a generous helping of youthful optimism about love. Kez, a bio-girl who dresses as a boy when not at school Orr home, has met Jules online and is smitten despite the “cool dude” exterior. This story has a darker outcome what with the complexities of gender identity and disclosure as it reinterprets the classic coming-of-age tale.

Kez is perky, accepting and generally at peace with her discomfort in a female body. Amy McAllister embodies the role with verve and charisma, making the audience sympathetic to consequences that arise from not telling Jules that she has a female, strap-on wearing body. The character’s good intentions are sweet, but not enough to save her.

Kez grows up quickly over the course of the story, and the Internet gives her a wealth of information to help her explore her gender identity and legal options. Her social media accounts facilitate meeting girls, and it’s all too easy to set up alternative profiles that portray her as a boy. It also helps her find a local support group, so the sword that is growing up in the digital age is well and truly double-sided.

This is a well-formed script with several layers. Whilst it is a powerful piece of storytelling as a solo performance, introducing additional actors to take on other roles would add depth to Kez’s experiences. McAllister uses the space well, though the opportunity to fully engage with the audience is missed.

Both productions are generally excellent examples of storytelling. The differing perspectives on teenage love are delightfully nostalgic and provocative without becoming twee or trite. The Roundabout enhances their intimacy, but limits scope for design and staging. These two plays would be served just as well, if not better, in a larger space that enables them to extend their production values.

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.

Troilus and Cressida, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

(c) National Trust, Petworth House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

There is hardly any Shakespeare at the fringe that isn’t dramatically altered in some way or another. Re-contextualisations abound, as does new work that’s derivative from a story or character. West Country-based Shakespeare on the Level’s Troilus and Cressida is neither of these. It has no gimmicks and no determinedly modern concepts. It is merely the text staged in a clear fashion that serves Shakespeare’s stories, with few divergences. This is not an innovative production and has a few faults, but is remarkably refreshing in its lack of fringe-ness.

Some cross-gendered casting is a welcome choice to improve balance between men and women. There are only three women in the cast of twelve so parity is hardly achieved, but the women in the cast also have the chance to play male roles. Director Kate Littlewood also makes Achilles openly gay, choosing to wile away the days in his tent with his lover, Patroclus. This is a lovely choice that aligns the play with its Greek and Roman roots and doesn’t disrupt the story.

The performances are mixed, with Susie Kimnell’s Helen and Louis Bowen’s Troilus standing out as particularly strong. There are some weak verse speakers who break up the rhythm, others aren’t fully connected to the text and either shout it or approach it too casually.

Littlewood takes a flowing, eastern approach to her costume design, though the Romans and the Greeks are very similar in style. With the multi-rolling necessary to cover the twenty-three characters and varied acting ability, a stronger visual indication of which camp is which would be welcome. She sets Troy in the round, and skilfully uses the diagonals so the audience can always see, and fight director Tom Jordan’s choreography also suits the space.

The story is cut down to a manageable length, maintains clarity and has a clear design concept. Though not a particularly fringe approach to Shakespeare, this is a well-staged production with a cast of emerging talent.

Troilus and Cressida 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.