Review: In Conversation with … Elaine C Smith ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Spoken word

In Conversation with … Elaine C Smith

The Stand’s New Town Theatre, v7

12:00 (23 August only)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4 stars)

How do you describe a national treasure? From the moment Elaine C Smith walked on to the stage of the New Town Theatre, she was wrapped in a blanket of love and held her audience in the palm of her hand. As an adopted Scot, I am hesitant about trying to describe someone who is so obviously adored by a wide section of the Scottish public: I was fascinated to learn more about this famous actress and comedian and how she came to be so highly regarded by so many people.

Elaine was in conversation with comedian and scriptwriter Philip Differ, whom she has known for many years, but who told us in his introduction that he would pretend he hardly knew her. We got to hear the answers to questions like ‘how did it all begin?’, but also eavesdropped on the backchat of two old friends who shared a common history and experience in the world of entertainment, with Names being dropped here, there and everywhere, though always lovingly, without a smidge of “ooh darling” pretentiousness.

What struck me most of all was Elaine’s pleased surprise at her emergence from an ordinary working-class family, who always ended family gatherings with a singsong [giving Elaine an early insight into the status of billing, and arousing in her a desire to be top of the family bill]. The prevalent “no’ good enuff” gene would normally smother any aspirations to a life in the arts: it wasn’t till, while babysitting one evening, she saw on STV a performance of that groundbreaking Scottish play The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil with people “doing straight drama in my own accent”.

She applied to study to teach drama and taught in a school for three years and then her world changed – she met John McGrath and became part of 7:84. It sounds as though much of her good fortune came simply from being in the right place at the right time – Naked Voice, Naked Video, Rab C Nesbitt’s Mary Doll, but it’s her talent that enabled her to prosper. She talked about the gradual emergence of female voices and female characters in a world dominated by ‘the table of men’ – talented scriptwriters who brilliantly told their stories but were all men, meaning that the female voice was never heard, or even thought about [and that even when she was aware of misogyny and sexism she was too feart of the ‘men at the table’ to voice a complaint].

But things have changed, and she has a voice, which is heard. Her proudest moment came when the breast cancer awareness campaign she was involved in resulted in a 50% increase in the number of older women going for screening: but there are so many other things of which to be proud, and she makes sure she goes into schools to let young girls and women know that there are possibilities open to them. Her latest joy is that she can now call herself “Granny Smith”, and spend time with her granddaughter Stella.

Elaine spoke of the importance of theatre that speaks to an audience of itself – this is how it is, and it is OF WORTH. She is quick to acknowledge the factors that made her success, not least that “table of menand the courage of the writers to insist to Alan Yentob of BBC2 that the actors currently playing Rab C Nesbitt and Mary Doll in

the Naked Video sketches should not be replaced by Scottish actors “well kennt in London”.

She’s had a fascinating and wide-ranging career – and still there are people who are surprised that she can act in straight plays – which she, like many comedians, says is far easier than doing comedy… many other fascinating comments, including pointing out that male comedians, even the Big Yin, talk to men, and that there is a need for women’s voices to be heard.

She made us howl with laughter demonstrating the voices she was asked to do [at 24 hours’ notice]: she was the only woman on Naked Radio and had to do them all. The challenge of doing a monologue as Zola Budd, the South African athlete who ran barefoot was howlingly funny: her first few words were okay and then she went on a whistle-stop tour of the UK’s accents… There were so many other golden moments, including conversations on stage with fellow-actors during lengthy applause in Calendar Girls, and how she prepared them for a Glasgow audience after the genteel reception from the good folks in Chichester!

Elaine C Smith is a brilliant actress, a warm-hearted woman, and a feisty Scot who is not loath so speak out in support of causes in which she passionately believes. The end of the session brought long, loud and loving applause from an audience who didn’t want to see their darling leave them – Elaine C Smith, National Treasure, we love you!

Mary Woodward




Army @ The Fringe in Association with Summerhall   (V210)

August 13 to 25th (not 19th)

14.20 (Tues to Thurs) 15.40 (Fri to Sun)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4 stars)


This is a verbatim play about ordinary young men thrown into extraordinary situations. These were teenage recruits caught up in the events of D day and beyond. It brings to vivid life the devastating testimony of five Normandy veterans, and there is the opportunity to meet two of the veterans after each show. These were inexperienced young conscripts who found themselves part of one of the most dangerous operations of World War Two. A variety of memories unfold, some quite humorous, some harrowing.
The lads involved came from different parts of the country. There was Smudger Smith, from Leeds, Ken “Cookey” Cooke from Nottinghamshire, sixteen year old Merry Meredith from London’s East End, Hank from Sheffield, Bert from Bermondsey,  and the show is introduced and completed by Queenie, a Veteran’s wife in her eighties from Yorkshire. She reflects on life after the war, including consequences such a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The cast are uniformly impressive, telling their stories in turn, talking of their fears en route, of the problems of the actual landings, of seeing so many dead bodies in the water, and then of the struggle to advance. One memorable section involved being ordered to blow up enemy vehicles in a village to clear it when there was much danger of killing civilians. Late we learn that even when family members were killed, locals could later be grateful that the Nazis had been driven out.
The play’s title, “Bomb Happy,” does not, of course have anything to do with cheerfulness. Rather, it is the term the guys used when their experiences had their effect on the men’s mental state. Shell shock was the term used earlier, or a greater of lesser degree of nervous collapse. There are a number of descriptions of the men seeing their friends and comrades killed in front of them,  or of being burned alive in tanks, and more. This cannot be borne indefinitely.
We hear about some guys getting wounded and being glad to be sent home to recover, and the way they were greeted as heroes and treated.
The sets were very simple, and imaginatively used. Just boxes of various sizes that took many forms.
This is a brilliantly devised, excellently presented and very memorable show.




Army@ The Fringe in association with Summerhall  (V210)

August 2nd to 25th (not 5,12,19)    13.15

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4 stars)

Here is a play about the WW11 poet Keith Douglas, written by Owen Sheers, well known for presenting television programmes about literary and military matters.
The room is which the play is presented in most distinctive; it is as though we are at the front, in the men’s quarters. There are beige sofas for us to sit on. We are a small audience, and a very privileged one.
Dan Krikler becomes Keith Douglas for us. His impersonation is deep, thorough and very impressive. As Douglas, he tells us about his experiences in the war in the Middle East, and about the beautiful women of Alexandria, and about one in particular, and gives us a moving account of that relationship. There is leave, there is preparation for the invasion, there are birthdays, there is correspondence with mother and the absence of father. There are other love affairs, including going back into his teen years. All this is presented in a way that fully engages us and we are swept up in a life that is very full and vibrant, maybe more so because of the imminence of death, the possibility of a sudden end. There is talk of trying to get a collection published, of correspondence with T S Eliot and others, and of if he will get published before he is killed, or if his first collection of poems will be his only one.
Before we go, Krikler as Douglas recites to us his perhaps best known poem,  Simplify me When I’m Dead. We are given a booklet containing that poem, and there is an exhibition about Douglas and his work along the approach to the performance room. This play has been recommended by no less  a person than Margaret Atwood, who described it as “Wonderful”. It is produced by, ” The Story of Books”  based in Hay on Wye.
This is an excellent performance of a very engaging play, which moves very effectively between the different times and aspects of a life that was so clearly full of great potential, but was cruelly snuffed out, as were so many at that time. Douglas was only twenty four when he died in 1945, but he had already achieved enough to be later considered the most significant and promising of the poets of that war.
Seeing this show, you not only learn about that life, but are expertly swept up into experiences we can be thankful not to have shared.




Assembly Roxy  (V139)

July 31st to August 25th (not 14, 21)     13.20 

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4 stars)

This is a stunning, funny, disturbing, exhilarating show. It is a monologue about holding on when everything seems to be crumbling. The image behind the title is that of a person as a collapsible chair – strong, sturdy, fit for purpose, useful, worth looking at – but capable of collapsing flat in a moment.
Performer Breffni Holahan is on a dusty plinth above the stage, a plinth she owns like a throne around which she can throw herself. She tells us about the circumstances of her life, her break up with her girlfriend, her loss of her job – did they let her go?, her relationship with her father, and much of the feelings that go with a breakdown. This brilliant show was written by Irish writer Margaret Perry, who has worked with the Abbey Theatre , Dublin, and it won the Origins Award for Outstanding New Work, VAULT festival 2019.
The character show us how she is seen by others, how some think she sees herself as superior, when she is struggling to keep things together, how she sees her body, and how she felt with her lover.
The words and images simply pour out of the performer, at a rate that seems amazing to maintain for the whole hour. Towards the end, we encounter some inarticulacy which serves to greatly highlight the perceptiveness and level of insight that we have been listening to.
I recommend this show very highly if you want a show that leaves you feeling alive to your fingertips on leaving, that takes you inside the mind and experiences of another person, that shows you what language is capable of offering, and gives you a taste of the dramatic skills that are on offer at the Fringe at its best.
Have the experience!




Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose     (V24)

July 31st to August 26th (not 12th)  14.45

⭐⭐⭐ (3 stars)

This is a finely acted two-hander which does, however, raise some questions. The action occurs in real time, leading up to the time, midnight, when one of the two becomes thirty. Ally, played by Ben Hadfield with a nervous energy and vulnerability which one can only warm to, is treating his birthday as something very significant. With Rory Thomas-Howes as his partner of some years, Zach, we see a person who is putting on some show of strength, to the extent of having struck  a man whom Zach feels insulted Ally just before the action starts. This is perhaps the more vulnerable person, someone still feeling his way to finding out who he really is, and buttressing himself with firm opinions meanwhile.
At such a time, events may move thick and fast, and people may say and do things they regret, and the depth of connection between the partners may make for rapid forgiveness, but the swings and roundabouts here were difficult to believe. A large number of serious issues were raised, but there was not time for the characters to give them much consideration. We moved on. As the play develops, it becomes ever more clear how unaccepting of his true nature Zach is.
The performers give us a real impression of the emotional confusion caused by doubting the basis of the central relationship of their lives. The question which the publicity said was raised here was, can two men maintain a monogamous relationship in today’s London? I am not sure that the London is relevant. It was perhaps more, can two men maintain a deep and lasting relationship when, as so often, they optimistically enter into it with little insight into each other or indeed into themselves?
The cast here do genuinely involve us in the turmoil of the hour in which the play happens, and show us the degree of confusion experienced by each man. Maybe the play could be expanded to give more consideration to the many issues raised. The ending is very appropriate.




theSpace @ Venue 45     10.10 am

August 19th to 22nd.

⭐⭐⭐ (3 stars)

This is a play that many will be familiar with, but you will not have seen it done quite like this. Shakespeare Reloaded are an international theatre collective based in Berlin. They are committed to re-imagining classic plays with a bold and contemporary edge. Members of the company come from all over the world, from Brazil to Bulgaria, and the ensemble taken together speaks more than ten languages. They perform in English.
A very physical approach is taken to the action. Characters may be lifted and carried about almost as in a physical theatre show, and this adds to a sense of joyful abandon. I was told beforehand that the show boasted a short, fierce Hungarian Lady Bracknell, and she is indeed fiercely effective. There is some cross-gender casting, which adds to the almost carnival spirit. The strong accents of the players do have some effect on the catching of humorous implications in some lines, but the use of large and broad physical actions serves to underline meaning.
The company take great evident joy in the performance, and throw themselves into it lustily. Much fun is had with the language of bunburrying, and the play proceeds at a helter-skelter pace, though there are times when things seem rather rushed – maybe Fringe timetables were making the company feel a need for speed.
The company have come from a sell-out run in Berlin, and they had a large audience the time I saw them, which they deserved, and this was a very fresh, ebullient and joyful seventy minutes.




Pleasance Courtyard  (V33)

July 31st to August 26th 

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4 stars)

This show fizzes from the first seconds. The set is strewn with clothes, there is only a box to sit on, and the home owner’s life has clearly not gone as he might have wished for this to be the setting. The couple rush in, carrying within them the argument and heated feelings that have brewed during an evening out with her parents.
There is no point in this show during which you might be tempted to wander off in thoughts to your own life – you are riveted to the situation unfolding in front of your eyes. He is Ollie, played by Sebastian Gardner, who also wrote the play. He is privately educated, but that has not resulted in opportunities. He shuns certain forms of advancement and is a teaching assistant. He is defensive and needy, but also quick to flare up and is not lacking pride.
The parents had been eating at a Wetherspoons, and they are definitely working class, something of which their daughter Laura (played by Lily Sinko,) is anything but ashamed, and she has a solid professional job.  She gives a very spirited performance and eruptions of argument and moments of peace making flow speedily between the two characters. They seem perhaps to flourish in this hothouse atmosphere; will there come a point where they go over the edge?
The play is cleverly structured and never flags. We hope these two will have patience and understanding towards each other, but soon they are off again, in what is a richly comic and acutely observed piece of theatre. Get along and laugh and be drawn into a finely delineated storm of a relationship. And we do get to see a point to the title.




Paradise in the Vault  V29

August  3rd to 25th (not 11. 18)

⭐⭐⭐ (3 stars)

This is a verbatim play that uses real-life testimonies to the inequality and prejudice that still surround LGBT lives. The Riot Road company canvassed opinions across the UK over a period of eighteen months.
The performance opens with a dominatrix drag queen singing to us, backed up by three eager cheerleaders. This was a striking and encouraging beginning. However, it was maybe unwise for them to begin with their biggest number – the remainder of the show took the form of recounted evidence gathered in their survey, which was disturbing and pointedly delivered, but seemed lacking in colour after the opening. The final section was very moving, and many issues and situations were covered, which included religious intolerance, coming out to parents, the extensive debate on trans rights, all of which are key issues.
It is sad to think that such prejudices still affect so many lives more than fifty years since the first partial legalising of homosexuality in England and Wales, but there are centuries of prejudice to be erased.
This is a play where you can buy an advance ticket or pay what you can on the day. What is said here has been said many times, but it does need still to be emphasised, and every effort to reduce and erase negative attitudes to sexual minorities is very much to be welcomed.

Review: Darius Davies: Persian of Interest ⭐⭐


Darius Davies: Persian of Interest

Just the Tonic

⭐⭐ (2 stars)

Davies, the millennial, presents us with a kaleidoscopic view of modern living. Indeed, we live in uncertain times, with fake news, the corruption of technology, the ‘me-too’ movement, AI, internet dating and dick pics penetrating modern life. But it is nice to be reminded (yet again) of the overt dishonesty surrounding us, albeit through subaltern eyes and through the medium of comedy – way to soften the blow of depressing modernity, Davies!

Slight flippancy aside, it is true that Davies truly has a lot to say. There is nothing quite like exposing the conspiracies of life that characterise these uncertain times than to pose as a female on Tinder for laughs and divulge details of your conversation with an unknowing stranger (Tez). The man only wants to ‘suck your [imaginary] bobs’, Davies (or should I say,

Daria – your Tinder alter ego). Tez is clearly as displaced and misguided by these times as you are – as are we all.

Indeed, we are all subjected to this fine pricking that life gives to all seven billion of us – but I came out of this comedy show half-bored, half-depressed. Sure, Davies offers some social commentary, but at this point, he’s beating a dead horse. Nothing uplifting emerges at the end of this show. Later, I retreat home in solemnity, to return to the isolation and unsympathetic recoil offered in this technological apocalypse.

By Joshua Kaye

Review: Phil Nichol: Too Much  ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐


Phil Nichol: Too Much 

Monkey Barrel Comedy 

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (5 stars)

Despite the docile (yet, mellow) audience, Nichol’s exceptional ability as a storyteller bestows the atmosphere with a pleasing humility that appeals to old and young; new and returning fans.

This intimate setting, at the Monkey Barrel, was the perfect location for his comedic repertoire. Picture this: You enter to see a cheerful Phil swaggering around the stage, with his guitar in hand and a greeting. You are in a safe place. The music is warm and fulfilling, and the discreet lighting allows you to drink in said music: a melodic osmosis.

But this osmosis extends beyond that of melody. Indeed, this give-and-take relationship between Nichol and his audience naturally develops during the show. Between his larger-than-life interactive anecdotes about strict religious upbringing, drugs, marathon running, taking the piss out of Scottish people, and prison, there is sage-old wisdom in this man. A humbling quality delivered between his highly-animated performance through his commentary about ageing and his obvious reverence for his elders.

The real meaning of his performance is realised at those moments of self-effacement. The fact is, growing older is a mixed bag of complexity. Complexity upon complexity, of growing insight, amid constant learning, and growing vulnerability. Too Much is happening with-in and with-out us, while we go through the motions of life. If for an hour, you can devote your time to learning from this man through laughter and tears, you will be rewarded. Phil Nichol has a heart of gold.

By Joshua Kaye