The Marked, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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It’s so easy to ignore the homeless people that line the periphery of routine journeys and forget they are just as human as the rest of us, with passions, fears and often troubled pasts. The Marked puts homeless young man Jack at the centre of a desolate, urban landscape populated with pigeons, people who move him on and demons from his past. Masks and puppetry add a richness to his story, but not always warmth. In most of Jack’s encounters, be they real or in his head, he is believably under threat.

Peter Morton’s puppets are sweet and whimsical, with Jack’s pigeon companion being particularly lovely and with an excellent range of movement. Jack as a child has a sadness to him, emphasised further by familial alcoholism that we can assume eventually drives him away from home.

Grotesque masks by Grafted Cede Theatre are skilfully used to differentiate between fantasy and reality, with the haunted, oversized faces ever in the back of Jack’s eyes. Zahra Mansouri’s costumes make these figures larger than life and all the more threatening, rendering Jack helpless in their presence and the audience to empathise.

Devised by the cast of three and presumably with the support of director Allin Conant, the spoken text centres around Jack’s encounters with a homeless couple, Pete and Sophie. Here is where the show falls short: the potential for conflict and tenderness amongst the three isn’t fully realised due to too few, underwritten scenes. Though these human characters ground Jack in reality somewhat, there is also little focus on the dichotomy of reality vs. demons. There is real potential for a fight for Jack’s life or sanity between the two forces, but the script doesn’t capture as much of Jack’s struggle as it could.

Visually, this is a wonderful production that makes some powerful points on the mental health of homeless people. Jack becomes a fully realised person through the creatures that haunt him, but his encounters with other humans don’t do him full justice.

The Marked tours nationally through 2017.

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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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.

Two Man Show, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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RashDash are angry. Like, fucking furious level of angry. They’re fed up of patriarchal language and gender stereotypes that limit both men and women from expressing themselves honestly. So they made a show about it. Two Man Show has three women in it, music and dance, nudity and a lot of explosive energy. It’s part science lecture, part role play and part celebration of who we are without others’ judgment and categorisation based on gender expression. It’s a fantastic, “fuck yeah” explosion of pretty skirts, masculinity, tits, cockfighting and nonconformity. It’s also pretty bloody brilliant.

Out of an opening tirade on equality in the dawn of human history, Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen take on the roles of two brothers, Dan and John. They don’t get on, arguing almost constantly about caring responsibilities for their terminally ill father. Their fighting builds in between movement and dance sequences of surprising intimacy and tenderness.

The culmination to Dan and John’s tension is a fantastic eruption of John’s frustrated masculinity feeling limited by “man things”. His words twists through Abbi’s, the man-woman who is happy in her own skin but doesn’t really suit any of that girly shit. Helen’s feminine contrast powerfully reinforces the importance of choice and freedom and that a woman doesn’t need to be butch to be a feminist and a man can express his feelings and do “feminine things” without his heterosexual maleness being threatened.

Greenland and Goalen’s performances are endowed with conviction and energy, and both are skilled physical performers who can convincingly play men, even with their breasts unveiled. They are accompanied by a musician, who backs them up with unfettered tunes of frustration and celebration.

This is a truly feminist show. Rather than blaming men, Two Man Show looks at the conventions of language that aids female suppression and acknowledges that men are not served by this system, either. Fabulously sequinned and ferociously opinionated, this is not one to miss.

Two Man Show 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.

Milk, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Everyone has a relationship with food. For some its straightforward, for others it’s complex. Food in terms of nourishment isn’t just that which we eat, either. Love, security, and all sorts of other things make us feel full. In Milk, three generations of couples in the same town negotiate what matters most to them and makes their lives feel complete. This is a slowly burning script that comes into its own towards the end when conflict becomes so high that the six characters lives cross outside of their partner’s. There is some good character detail, but writer Ross Dunsmore’s first play shows promise but needs further development.

Steph and Ash are fourteen. Ash is a fairly typical teen boy, but Steph, from a dysfunctional home, has a pathological need to be sexually desired. When Ash doesn’t satisfy, she finds a new, more dangerous target. Danny and Nicole are young marrieds expecting their first child. When the baby arrives, unforeseen complications and postpartum hormones challenge Nicole’s preconceptions about motherhood and open a divide between the couple. Cyril and May are in their 90s and homebound, too scared of the changing landscape of architecture and aggressive young people to go out. As they fantasise about past Sunday roasts, their hermetic existence takes its toll.

The storylines that Dunsmore unfolds are all believable though in their kinship to real life, they take most of the play to reach any level of compelling conflict. Cyril and May’s story has hardly any, rendering it the least interesting and most forced plotline. Whilst the other two are more dynamic, they are underserved in this intertwining format. The two younger couples could each easily have an entire play devoted to them; to force them all into one feels indecisive in the face of several ideas.

Fred Meller’s design is cold and utilitarian, though has some lovely surprises that are gradually unveiled. Director Orla O’Loughlin delineates the three couple’s worlds well and captures the easy rhythm of Dunsmore’s dialogue without adding any forced stylisation.

Without a doubt, Dunsmore’s couples all have compelling stories to tell (though all are heteronormative, white and skew towards female dependency on men), but the format he uses to tell them is not the most effective. Too much exposition interferes with the empathy for the characters and whilst the ending is a satisfying payoff, the build to it is too little and too late.

Milk 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.

In Fidelity, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Rob Drummond and his wife Lucy are celebrating their fifteenth anniversary. As a gift to her, he made a show where two single audience members have the opportunity to go on a first date there and then in the hope of finding the sort of love he has with Lucy. Though the bulk of the production centres around the selected couple on stage, there is plenty of audience interaction as we guide them down the path of getting to know each other. Part TED talk, part talk show, part slumber party, In Fidelity is as informative as it is heartwarming and fun.

Drummond’s extensive research on brain activity, hormones and psychology drives the framework around the first date and is consistently present throughout the show. The pop-science is easy to understand and his presentation style makes this content all the more engaging. After a series of questions he selects the two audience members who will have their first date, the focus becomes on facilitating the introduction of these two people. Each performance will undoubtedly be different and have varying degrees of successful matchmaking, but this makes it all the more exciting.

There’s a gleeful voyeurism that In Fidelity satisfies and even though Drummond gives the audience and the pair on their date quite a lot of freedom, he keeps a tight grip on discussion and interaction so it never feels that he will lose control of the show’s progression. This restriction ensures that everyone in the room feels safe, and its remarkable how quickly people feel comfortable answering very personal questions about their love life. Drummond’s onstage persona is warm and strong, a great balance that encourages the audience to open up. His incorporation of personal anecdotes, adventures in the research process and his own relationship’s journey also help.

The show ends happily the day I see it, with the couple clearly having some degree of chemistry between them. Even if that doesn’t happen, Drummond ends with some fantastic news of his own, leaving the audience with a warm, fuzzy feeling as they leave the theatre. This theatrical experiment is a wonderful exploration of form and its benevolence is a wonderful thing to be a part of.

In Fidelity ends 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.

Us/Them, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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On 1 September 2004, a group of terrorists stormed a school in Beslan, holding over a thousand people hostage on the first day back after summer holidays. Most of them were children. When the siege ended three days later, over 300 people were dead. Part history lesson and part dramatherapy storytelling, two actors playing unnamed children who were hostages in the crisis re-enact the events of those three days. The childlike seriousness, quiet bickering and playful staging in Us/Them provides an excellent, contemplative lens through which to view world disasters.

Gytha Parmentier and Roman van Houtven are a soft spoken girl and boy who take pride in their school and their education. They go to the best one in town, and it’s near a wonderful forest. On the other side of the forest is the border, and across the border, children don’t go to school, the men are pedophiles and the women have moustaches. They view the world in black and white, everything is simple and explained in a matter of fact delivery. Whilst they show little fear, as hours stretch into days, the heat and dehydration take a toll on their bodies. Through their tiredness, they try to make sense of the terrorists’ demands and work out what they have to make them let them go. Their naivety is both heart wrenching and warming, rather than condemn they want to please everyone and carry on living their lives in peace.

The script is mostly narration, with some quibbling between the two on how certain moments panned out. More dialogue between the two would be welcome, but the design choices keep the narration from becoming too repetitive. It is description heavy, accented with colourful, abstract staging – childrens’ coats hang on the back wall, a web of unravelled string slows them down so as not to startle the terrorists. Their movements are angular, with leaps, falls and physical play. The bombs they rig around the gymnasium where they are held are balloons. Whilst the imagery and text is childlike, the undercurrent of danger and horror is inescapable, and the quiet honesty is wholly riveting.

Children are so often the faces of global tragedies that rally sympathy and action. Think of the little boy washed up on the beach, the tiny Syrian airstrike victim staring into the middle distance in the back of an ambulance. Whilst their images are splashed across the news and social media, they are rarely heard from. Perhaps if they were given a platform to air their experiences and perspectives, the adults that run the world would be less inclined to mindlessly retaliate against violent acts. Us/Them, rather than having an in-yer-face aggressive, political agenda, intuitively uses text and staging to convey a powerful, lingering request to listen and be kind, no matter how foreign we are to each other.

Us/Them 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.

Extravaganza Macabre, Battersea Arts Centre

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On 13th March last year, I couldn’t tear myself away from twitter as news of the Battersea Arts Centre fire spread. The night before, I had taken my school’s GCSE Drama students to see Gecko’s Missing. The students had never seen abstract, physical theatre before and though they had mixed reactions, they talked about it for days afterwards and drew on it as they devised their own physical theatre pieces. As someone twice their age who is drama school trained and a seasoned theatregoer, I still rely on the BAC to foster similar reactions in myself. Whilst there are certainly shows that aren’t to my taste, the venue has consistently expanded my knowledge and understanding of the theatre and performance.  To watch the fire unfold in real time over social media was devastating. Thankfully no one was hurt and I’m certain those that work/have worked there were affected much more than I was, but I thought I was losing a chunk of my own theatrical landscape.

As the news broke that the BAC would open the front part of the building the next day, my heart leapt to know that all was not lost. The resourcefulness, determination and camaraderie of theatre people pulled together to reopen and raise funds. Now, a bit more than a year later, parts of the building closed by the fire are reopening. First were the artists’ bedrooms, now the remarkable, new open-air space, The Courtyard, debuts with Little Bulb’s similarly spirited show, Extravaganza Macabre. Spunky, bouncy and full of heart, this Victorian melodrama with heaps of music, audience interaction, and unadulterated love for their work makes for a delightful opening of the new BAC performance space.

The complete lack of hipster irony makes this show a rare treat. Though heavily stylized with narration and over-the-top performances, the trio of performers fully commit to it rather than commenting on it from a distance. Daylight, fluid actor/audience boundaries and interaction wholly engages the audience with the story, and the reasonably complex structure that never fails to surprise. Songs, narration and scenes alternate and incorporate plenty of slapstick; these combined with the casual outdoor environment makes a fantastic example of popular theatre also suitable for family audiences.

None of the three performers can be singled out as weaker than the others. They are multi-talented actor musicians brimming with infectious joy and exuberance. They fearlessly throw themselves around the ground floor and the gallery, down stairs and trap doors. Their use of space and inclusion of the whole audience regardless of what level they were on is fantastic – no one feels left out, and every bit of the Courtyard is utilised.

The script they created is a bit convoluted, but the narration clearly signposts changes in time and location, as does their multi-rolling. It’s complex enough that adults won’t be bored, but young people in the audience enjoy the warm silliness of the physical comedy within the story. A storm is the catalyst for the separation of a family and an unrelated young couple, all of whom endure much peril and crossed paths in order for everything to be right again. There’s love, violence, grief and death, all of which are treated with extravagance and utmost importance. There are still peaks and troughs in the plot and the emotional range is varied enough that, even though overly exaggerated, doesn’t become mundane.

Both the BAC and Little Bulb display immense passion for their work, and the two marry perfectly to inaugurate the courtyard. Warmth and energy and love radiate from Extravaganza Macabre, and a heavy dose of innocent goofiness makes this production truly something special.

Extravaganza Macabre runs through 26th 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.