Archive for category Clare Finney
Clare’s favourite 2012 Fringe shows were:
Dirty Great Love Story (review)
As heart-warming funny as any classic rom-com, as messy as real life, and as sharply intelligent as anything you’ll find on the Fringe, this love story told in rhyming verse is an hour and half of sheer joy.
As You Like It (As Told Be, in association with Greenwich theatre) (review)
Maybe it was because it was the first thing I saw at the Fringe, maybe it’s because it’s one my favourite of the Shakespeare comedies, but this production, which has seen fierce competition from Cambridge University’s all-male take on it, is the one of the few one-off Edinburgh shows I would have loved to bottle and bring back to London with me as, with no more than a small stage, some-ill fitting costumes and a great deal of extraordinary talent they transcend all the imitations of fringe theatre to produce a Shakespeare comedy worthy of the name.
Cambridge Footlights (review)
Clever, sharp, thought-provoking, challenging and – above all – flipping hilarious, this is sketch comedy at its finest. It’s well known that Cambridge Footlights boasts some of the funniest alumni in the world, and this troupe do them justice. No fringe foray should be complete without a visit.
Imagine sort of dying, then having your life played out in front of your eyes and those of several jury members. Not the good bits, mind, just those that caused you pain and/or shame. Imagine being judged by them; grilled on them; forced to contemplate what was and what could have been.
This is what Eric Argyle must face two days after dying at 11:42am. Played out by the acclaimed team behind Minute After Midday, which won The Scotsman Fringe First last year, this is an ambitious tale of love that’s lost before its ever even been found. Their ambition pays off however, thanks to a stellar cast, clever set and a musical accompaniment that moved us to tears. While the plot was dense it held together, knitting each storyline together via a narrator and clever set changes with remarkable effect.
It’s difficult to reveal more without spoilers, to be honest, save for saying I left this comi-tragedy smiling with tears in my eyes. Eric’s is an unremarkable life – like many I imagine – rendered remarkable through scrutiny and record. And with such an uplifting, moving ending there’s hope for us all.
★★★★★ Cambridge Footlights: Perfect Strangers Pleasance Dome 4pm (run ends 27th August)
With an alumni list as long and star-studded as a Speilberg film, the Footlights have no small amount of expectation on them – an expectation which is obvious from the moment you walk in. The room is rammed. Why they weren’t given a larger venue I don’t know, given they sell out consistently, and if I had any criticism it would be that the stage isn’t high enough. Yet that, ladies and gentleman, is testimony to just how anxious I was to miss none of this expectation-exceeding show.
In short, if you’re looking for a yardstick with which to measure the Fringe’s comic offering, this is it. It is classic, solid British humour, of the like found in Blackadder and Dad’s Army – hardly surprising, given Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Mitchell and Webb and more all cut their teeth in the Footlights.
What is surprising, however, is to find it in ones so young. The vast majority of this years Footlights are still in second year. To see them turn such a sharp satirical eye on such themes as liberal guilt (a tweeting, tagine-eating, Guardian-reading couple are forced to come to terms with their son’s intolerant leanings) and capitalism (an innocent game of Action Man and Barbie is shattered by the arrival of a more mercenary doll) is remarkable, not least because they miraculously tie almost every sketch together at the end.
Just how they do it I can’t tell you – partly because I’ll spoil it, partly because it’s joined the Matrix in the list of plotlines to detangle later in my head. Nevertheless, it is immensely satisfying to witness, and lifts their comedy well above that of other university troupes. As well as being comedians, they are also actors, with a pitch perfect delivery and an ability to embody their character intensely, even in a minute-long sketch, Monopoly money-bags ‘Dennis’ is a case in point. Each brings their own talent, looks and eye for the funny, and its as clear from the performance as it is from the writing. Keep up the good work Footlights; we could do with Blackadder Returns.
It’s half past eleven at night and I’m sat on my own in a row watching a straight couple get it on. As if that wasn’t embarrassing enough, I’m also studiously taking notes. It looks like I’m picking up tips – which would reflect rather poorly on my own love life to be honest, as the vast majority of this play is excruciatingly awkward. Thankfully though, I am merely reviewing Dirty Stop Out Production’s new play A Guide To Second Date Sex.
The play opens with Ryan (Thomas O’Connell): a tall, gangly man, preparing for a second date ‘at home’ by spraying deodorant everywhere and making his dumbbells more visible . Over the intercom, his hilariously frank sub-consciousness sounds out: “Should I have a wank? No,” he concludes. “I’ll leave it” – a decision he’ll come to regret later when he and his would-be, could-be girlfriend Laura (the lovely Amy Butterworth from comedy band Jonny and the Baptists) finally start hitting it off. First though, the not-yet-a-couple couple have some issues to sort out.
This scene, in which Ryan and Laura discover they have more in common than they think they do, is arguably the play’s only plot line. The rest is a series of awkward silences, misunderstandings and acutely observed truths. Yes, girls do fake emergency call their friends when they’re on dates just in case they need rescuing – which I suppose means I must also assume men move their weights out from under their bed and dust them before a date arrives (among other things I’d rather not write). Needless to say one of the most joyous and revelatory things about this play is the way the laughter is divided along gender lines. Granted this was a heterosexual couple, but issues of past relationships and when to talk about them, and cleanliness ‘down there’ pertain to every type of relationship, and this play is far more inclusive and universal than you might think.
Indeed, if I had one abiding impression of A Guide To Second Date Sex it would be that it was such a sharing experience. At one point, one of the male audience members repeated what Laura had just said to himself incredulously, and everyone started laughing. It felt communal – like one of those drunk, searingly honest conversations you occasionally have with mates – even though I was sitting on my own.
With clever additions such as an finger-bitingly awful video on attracting the a mate (still heterosexual, but substitute accordingly and you’ll find the same rules apply) played at ‘inappropriate moments and intelligent performances from both partners, this play relished the rude and crude without being gratuitous – and that, like its namesake, is a difficult feat to pull off.
It’s difficult, when you are neither a mother nor of a particularly feisty disposition to get the best out of Sarah Kendall’s new show about motherhood. It’s even harder when, walking in barely 30 seconds after the start time, she fixes you with a Look. Most comedians make a joke out of latecomers; Sarah kind of pounces on them, and while I appreciate how rude tardiness is this can make for a pretty tricky atmosphere at the beginning. She won us round eventually, of course – she is, when all’s said and done, irresistibly funny – but only after addressing the elephant in Pleasance.
“Is it weird in here? It’s weird in here, isn’t it. Don’t worry I can feel it too. You’re like an abusive lover – you start to laugh and I think we’ve got going then you stop suddenly,” she grins. Under normal circumstances I’d say this was comic suicide – surely the only way to make a situation more awkward is to point it out to everyone? – yet somehow because she’s Sarah Kendall and a feisty comedienne, it works out for her. For the first time that evening every one of the audience cracks up.
From then on it’s plain sailing. Sarah’s show may be about motherhood, but it’s a mercifully intelligent take on it. A rather predictable early skit in which she complains about taking her toddler on a 14-hour-flight (we know how hard it is, Sarah – we’ve heard them) is supplanted by those exploring the increasingly sexualized nature of the world her daughter will face. Why do we tolerate music videos in which woman are subjectified and lesbian sex shown solely for man’s gratification? Why do we unquestioningly read The Ugly Duckling – a story that essentially says beauty if the only solution to bullying – before bedtime?
Yes Kendall is angry, but legitimately so – and to this anger she sprinkles just enough comic exaggeration to keep it light hearted. Yes she’s sarcastic, but she makes it the highest form of wit. Having sat down narked and humiliated, I left laughing –albeit not in the lasting, uplifting way that the fringe’s less life-hardened stand up’s leave you with. Still. I’m not a mother. Or 36.
I left the stage with one question: Why has no one done this before? Why have we let Dickens – a man who, as Miss Havisham points out, liked to play God with his female characters but had little understanding of them’ – get away with leaving this poor, jilted creature stuck in a room unable to tell her side of the tale? After all, every other interpretation has been done. We’ve seen Magwitch go to Australia, and Pip in South Park. We’ve seen Great Expectations silent and in cartoons.
But Miss Havisham? From the character who arguably suffered a girls worst nightmare, then got stuck in it, we’ve barely heard a pipsqueak. Three great cheers then for writer Di Sherlock and actress Linda Marlowe, then for putting expectations back in the mouth of the girl with no hope.
Set in Stasis House, Miss Havisham’s decrepit mansion, the set here is exactly how Dickens envisaged it: stopped clock, old dresser decaying cake. Miss Havisham too is dressed by the book, her limpid torn dress sagging, her hair still festooned in weeds. Yet from the moment she opens her mouth, you quickly realize this is no literary pawn. This Miss Havisham is her own woman; independent, filthy-mouthed and unscrupulous in abusing her creator. She laughs openly at his cuckolded wife, Nell, and wonders nastily if her plump figure is to blame.
She herself has no such problem – as she points out, her cake remains uneaten, her waist gaunt – and indeed questions of vanity are at the black heart of this play. Her meditations on age are brilliant, shot through with witty reflections (“welcome to the land of the shriveled, where even moisturizer can’t help you”) and insight that had the more senior females shivering in recognition. When she makes the final terrible step from influencing Estella to metaphysically inhabiting her (nice nod to Dickens’ real-life love of the occult here), it is jealousy of her figure and skin that drives her as much as any impulse for revenge. From being merely furious, she becomes demonic – Marlow’s award-winning eyes come into this own here – dancing Estella’s ‘coming out’ ball with a sense of desperation reminiscent of Nora in A Doll’s House.
Indeed she seems to take revenge on all the most subjected women in the canon, and the cross-references and metafictional points add much to the play. Marlowe is at her strongest when playing the angry Miss Havisham; her remorse at the end when she realizes what she’s done to Pip and Estella is less convincing. But don’t let that put you off. This is an excellent play.
You’ve seen them in As You Like It (at least you should have done – it’s lovely) now see them in Macbeth at C Chambers Street. This is the theatre group that makes the Fringe feel like the West End. Having opted to set As You Like It in the Prohibition era, the group chose to roll Macbeth forward to 1940s Britain and World War Two; and if the potential of the 20s As You Like It was somewhat limited, the rendering of the witches as 3 headscarfed, overalled woman from the Auxiliary Territorial Service and Macbeth as a power-hungry general was nothing short of a triumph.
Of course, allusions to Hitler were inevitable. You can’t cast a white-blonde-haired man as a reckless general in a uniform without somebody thinking of him. Nevertheless, the effect was potent as opposed to clichéd.
Indeed, clichés were studiously absent. This Lady Macbeth is more complicated than evil incarnate and her soliloquy was as moving as it was grim. She asks to be filled “crown to the toe topful / Of direst cruelty”, and she gets it, but she retains the femininity and feeling most directors carelessly cast aside. Equally effective was the shifting dynamic between her and Macbeth, and between him and Banquo.
Given that these transformations lie almost entirely in meaningful looks, it is remarkable to see such young actors manage it not just adequately, but to the extent of creating an palpable atmosphere. Though the highlight of this play is in fact set based (the witches manner of prophesying, I’m giving nothing away), this troupes’ genius lies in transcending both time, manner and stage.
Rita, or rather Susan, is a hairdresser hell-bent on education. Frank is an poet-come-bitter-academic hell-bent on drink. It is an unlikely partnership – which presumably is why the play has proved so popular since Willy Russell wrote it 32 years ago, despite the film version’s mixed critical reception. Education might have moved on since then, but the class structure remains firmly intact.
Which is why this play is so poignant. Set in 1980s Liverpool, the play opens as Rita meets her tutor, Frank. Her subject is words and the power of words – and for the first time in decades Frank – and with him the audience – finds himself genuinely enthused by her passion and her ability to relate Macbeth’s tragedy to that of a brittle-haired client left under the perm machine too long.
Yet trouble lies in store for them. Rita may love literature, but loving it won’t pass her examination – ad as Frank dutifully quashes this innocent enthusiasm to make her more objective a new Rita starts to emerge.
This Rita’s called Susan. She’s well dressed, well spoken and much better played than the Rita of earlier scenes, whose lines at times seemed almost garbled in the effort to get to this point. This is the only criticism I have of the play. Performing something so well known is difficult (indeed performing anything is difficult after Julie Walters has touched it) and its almost inevitable the more memorable lines will be rushed in parts. But to deal so quickly with scenes like that of Frank speaking about his wife is to do an injustice to both the actors and the play.
Actress Claire Sweeney is brilliant at effecting the transformation from a barely literate hairdresser to an intelligent, discerning lady and scenes like that in which she tries to imitate the RP of her new peers are really well done. But this is a proper theatre company from London with the props, stage and budget to match, and this is one of the most well-known 20th century plays out there. To spend valuable fringe time seeing something so established and conventional seems a bit of waste unless it is mindblowingly good.
You know you’re onto a winner when a small, top-floor theatre at the fringe is full to bursting only one day into the festival. Bob Kingdom’s uncanny impersonation of Dylan Thomas might have been running 20 years, but it shows no more signs of flagging than the famous Welsh bard himself.
Or, rather, the bard’s poems. Thomas himself died 50 years ago having lived and drunk the life of a celebrity poet a tad too fully, a tragedy which adds comedy as well as poignancy to Kingdom’s performance aged 68. He appears in character: suit, silk polka dot tie and plimsolls for comfort, as no doubt Thomas would himself have done had he not died so young, and when he begins it is in the mellifluous cadence of the poet.
He introduces himself: “AJP Taylor’s shirt”, “a Welshman above average height… for Wales ”, who can speak “three languages – English, BBC Third Programme and saloon.” “I write for the love of man…endless churnings in love with the shape and sounds of word” Kingdom recites, and in so doing makes sense of the blizzard of adverbs and adjectives which blanket his anecdotes. It’s a visceral joy to follow, if not always easy to understand.
More than once I found myself wishing I’d reacquainted myself with Thomas’ densely descriptive style before I arrived and if Return Journey is on your to-do list I recommend you do so. Relaxing into a series of witty anecdotes, Kingdom relays the tales of Thomas’s American tours, his return trips to his home-town Swansea – once to arrive late and hungover to find his parents had friends over to meet him then again years later to find the people there remember him more for his bad behaviour than for his poetry – in a manner so mellifluous it’s hard to know if he’s started a poem.
In fact these come later, in the second half: Death shall have no dominion, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, and Lament deftly delivered in a cultivated, insouciant drawl. In some ways that’s accurate: Thomas was, as he himself said, “pulpit-posh”. Nevertheless, there could be more resonance in the delivery, and more demarcation between the poems and the preceding anecdotes. I wasn’t Dylan-ready, but perhaps after 20 years of being him Kingdom is too prepared. As an insight into the dry wit, personality, and creative plumb lines of this poet this is a valuable and insightful hour, and one which Dylan fans will relish; as a simple hour of poetry, its tricky. I’m not saying avoid it. Just do your homework before you go.
I’ll be honest: in an environment replete with great comedy, its difficult to get the best out of sketch group not yet fresh out of university. It’s even harder when the renowned Cambridge Footlights are having a good run, as they are this year. Still. This was a good innings from Durham. They have much in the way of energy and brains, and their ideas bounded in comic potential. It’s just a shame so little of this potential was realized in the sketches that were, in every other sense, so cleverly set up.
Three wise men using Siri? Invoicing childhood? The Captain Oates “I could be gone for some time” scene? Surely you can’t go wrong with those. Yet here, as in a number of other potentially hilarious sketches, Durham were a little bit flat. There were some definite hits: a masterful piece of silent comedy (and that’s no mean feat), a very brief Brief Encounter spoof and a Royal Academy of Drama audition showed the groups sweet, playful brand of humour to great effect. It’s also a great relief to see comedy not contingent on smut. They just could have been so much funnier with it, and it’s always a shame to such good ideas end up a few chortles short of a laugh.
Katie Bonna is a pretty, witty liability careering down the fast lane toward 30. Richard Marsh is a quiet, slightly geeky man with a sense of humour that is endearingly hit and miss. They’d make a lovely couple – everyone says so, and even they know there’s some sort of connection there – yet whenever they try to make it happen things go horribly awry. Sound familiar?
Well, if you’re thinking of a Richard Curtis film, I implore you to think again. This is a love story, but it’s in rhyming verse (don’t knock it ‘til you’ve heard it) and it’s a messy one full of mishaps most rom-com producers wouldn’t touch with a camera pole. Vomiting in a man’s crotch instead of giving him a blowjob? Simply finding a glamorous Hollywood actress to agree to that would be challenge enough.
Katie Bonna (the actress, writer and character in this scenario) has no such qualms however. Entering into the role head on (not just the blow-job one, of course – all parts are convincing) she becomes the embodiment of the dissatisfied thirty-something while simultaneously avoiding the stereotype pitfalls that implies. Yes, she’s broody, but she’s also funny, feisty and makes the sort of romantic choices you’d expect from a girl aged 16, not 29. She can see – and comically impersonate – her friends clearly enough, but she cannot see for herself, and herein lies the sweet irony of the play.
Richard – her should-be, would-be lover – has glasses, but can see life far clearer than Katie can (as a heartwarming soliloquy on specs renders beautifully). Played by real-life Richard Marsh, he is the poetic representative of those nice men you love but ‘not in that way’. He will not run shouting down a rainy street, but he’ll “take a stand on paperwork”, and though he’s missing a six-pack he makes a mean cuppa. To watch Katie ignore him is to watch your life’s romantic errors rolled into an hour-long play.
And yet… and yet asides from the obvious pain this entails, the experience is wholly positive. Neither rhyming, comedy nor storyline misses a beat. If you’re looking for straight fuzzy feelings I’d skip this one. If you’re looking for reality – nail-bitingly awkward, frustrating, morning-after reality – then go for it. For this not to be sold out by 27th August would be one of the greatest crimes of the fringe.
I’ll admit it now: I was never going to not like Mr Thom Tuck. Smart, speedy, with a name which in and of itself suggests he was born to be funny, he has everything a stand up comic needs and more. Even his drunkenness pleases me. Being proudly British, I am more amazed than ashamed that he can perform after half a bottle of red wine and consume the remainder while doing so. It’s part of his shtick, being a smoker and a drinker, and as he says so himself: it’s cool.
Indeed, he thinks more people should do it. “It’s the only form of civil disobedience we have left,” he cries, “and if everyone does it they’ll stop making such stupid laws about it!” The suggestion that glamorous colours like gold and silver be banned to make it less sexy (yep, that idea really has been floated) is a case in point.
Yet this and a few jibes at the David Cameron and Michael Gove’s appearances (bit of an easy shot there – they’re hardly lookers) is as political as Thom’s show gets. His comedy is personal: a life story of sorts that, for all its hilarity and farce, winds up as far more poignant than you would imagine. “What it is to be human – that’s what my shows about” he chuckles through a swig of wine at the start.
But as the show does on, you realize: this was no joke. Thom Tuck is as much a thinker as any philosopher. He knows his Descartes and his ‘Cogito ergo sum’. But much as I love Descartes, given the choice between Les passions de l’âme and a comedy of childhood fort-building, Glastonbury festival, and the striking similarities between Hungry Hippos and oral sex, I know which one I’d go for. Every time.
Eclectic, observational sketches bundled together under a suitably abstract pun is pretty much the preserve of university sketch groups. Only after graduation do overarching themes and storylines start to emerge. Yet this doesn’t necessarily make them easier: it takes a particularly honed sense of humour to take on the seemingly obvious targets of ‘middle class blues’ and ‘21st century men’ and get a laugh out of it, and the Oxford Revue do so loudly and frequently, employing music, farce, and no small amount of brains.
The latter could be more widely employed – the group are at their best when they’re taking chances, and allowing their obviously high IQs to lead them into more risky territory. A sketch where body parts are trying to make sense of their DNA in preparation for being born was a highlight, as was the wacky couples rugby game. Equally smart were some of the second-long sketches near the start. It’d be nice if they’d managed to tie them together a la Cambridge Footlights, but this is a group with huge potential and once they find and stick to their calling they’ll be hilarious. For now, though, they are very funny indeed.
We all have our own ways of marking another year on earth. Some go on holiday, others dance the night away or get pissed with mates. Yet of all the many and varies ways to celebrate, perhaps the most morbid is to listen back to tape recordings you made on younger, more hopeful birthdays. Nevertheless, each and every year this is precisely an increasingly infirm and lonely man called Krapp has chosen to do.
He still gets pissed of course. Though this is no comedy, Beckett’s shortest play is periodically livened up by Krapp’s trips to the drinks cabinet during which he stumbles, chuckles and mutters incoherently to himself. Penned by Beckett in the 1950s the play is typical of his concern for life’s outcasts – the old, the infirm, the destitute – and portrays a degree of loneliness so marked it can be almost unbearable to watch in parts; and it is these parts that director Fiona Baddeley has done best.
The play opens with Krapp (played by Last of the Summer Wine veteran Tom Owen) slumped on the desk, half asleep, half drowning in brandy. To his right, an old-fashioned tape recorder sits eager to swallow the 30-year-old spool. This Krapp finds with gusto: rummaging and fumbling through drawers with all the desperation of a man running out of time. Beckett was particular to the point of obsession when it came to stage directions and Owen executes them beautifully – a vital skill in a play in which there is so little speech.
This is an important warning. If you don’t know Beckett, and like your theatre served warm with plot-lines and dialogue, this isn’t for you. If, however, you are into cold, minimal absurdism then this is your thing. There were some technical issues with the recorded sound (about half the dialogue is 69-year-old Krapp speaking to the audience and the rest is him on the tape player) when I saw it, but I’m assured they’re resolved now.
Don’t be surprised however, if the tape is quiet at times. This play is all about a pseudo-conversation between Krapp in the immediate and a younger Krapp as immortalized on the tape, and modulating the cassettes sound quality offers a clever way to explore questions of mortality. This presumably is what Baddeley sought to do. Though few record their lives so literally, internal conversations are something even people with friends can identify with – and in that respect this play is as universal as can be.
“Come in love! Come in! I’ve just got a pensioner on y back.” Thus Agnes, played by Abi Tedder, welcomes me to her One-Woman Play. I’m a bit late, unfortunately, as are a number of people – but as she greets us in turn – “cheesy football love?” “I was just telling this lot how there are some cultures where they mourn for a year – did you know?” – the fine line this play walks between theatre and stand up becomes increasingly clear. This is character comedy – and I for one am relieved.
Put off one-man shows for life by a Friends episode (the one where Chandler finds himself in the front row being confronted by one woman shouting “why don’t you like me?!”) I had imagined all single character performances to be terrifying. Agnes though, is anything but. Newly orphaned and with a strained relationship with her wicked stepmother (“if Cinderella had had a mother like that she’d have shat herself”) her smiles and eager sense of humour are all that stands between her and the extensive mental trauma she has suffered through childhood the extent of which, sadly, gradually transpires as the play ensues.
This is storytelling at its traditional best – a character growing to know themselves and changing consequently – told in a manner that is funny and moving by turns. Abi Tedder’s Agnes could occasionally be more consistent (she can get carried away at points by her clumsiness, and it undermines the charcater’s obvious intellgence) but I’d still recommend it as a classic example of a hidden gem you’d avoid normally, but will find and love at the Fringe.
It’s true, to an extent, that Liz Lochhead makes nothing happen in her poetry reading. Emerging casually out onto a platform in the plush Assembly Rooms, she delivers both her poems, and the anecdotes surrounding them in the likeable manner of a friend who just happens to be a master of words. Her poems are personal, but accessible provided you get the accent (no RP here – this is the Scottish Laureate, ye ken) and there is something for everyone in a subject list ranging from school to her mothers sex life (or lack of).
Her playful use of well known phrases – a poem reflecting on what a teenage-hood in high heels, and all they entail, have done to her leads her to wish her little sister not be in her shoes; a poem about Scotland’s lost youth shouts “trouble is NOT my middle name” – is cleverly done.
Though she admits she “can’t read without the book in my hand” she barely refers to it, delivering her lines with the humour, character and feeling born of 40 years revelling in verse. Including poems from her very first collection (“And I thought I was fat then,” she grins, pointing at the sweet and slender girl on the cover. “Youth is wasted on the young”), as well as more recent readings from those commissioned by as part of her Scottish Laureateship, this is as much the perfect introduction to Lochhead as it is the perfect précis for those who have loved her for decades. The range of ages and appreciation noises on the floor suggested both were present and equally pleased.
“Poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/ In the valley of its making” she recites at the start of her reading, explaining the role this famous Auden quote has played in her verse. It may be true. But even if it is, few valleys are as rich, plentiful and memorable as hers.
This is the third version of As You Like It I have seen in Edinburgh this year, and the second one I have reviewed. To be honest, I thought by now I’d be tired. But with an all-male cast, a stage littered in drag costume, and a contemporary setting complete with mobiles and iPods, this production by Cambridge University Amateur Dramatics was more different than I could have ever have hoped for.
The play opens in Paris, where the concern for surface over substance is amusingly close to the bone. Thanks partly, I assume, to it being an all-male cast there was far more focus on the male characters than in other abridged productions I’ve seen. The scene where brother Oliver and Orlando rupture is included, together with a wonderful take on the scene where Oliver instructs a wrestler to kill Orlando in an ensuing match. To have this conversation take place during the chain-clad wrestler’s work-out in a modern-day gym is a stroke of genius on the director’s part.
So what of the ‘female’ characters? Though brilliantly appropriate for a play whose comedy premised on cross-dressing and fluid identities, when ill-used drag can often descend into something offensive either to woman or real drag queens. This production, however, did neither. Celia and Rosalind acted out their relationships both with each other and with their men with authenticity. The way the transvestite Jaques gradually disrobed during the “All the world’s a stage” speech was poignantly done.
There were a few contemporary touches to add humour, but these did not draw from the script’s faithful interpretation. Indeed, if anything they added to it significantly. Reading reports beforehand of Beyonce playing and characters trying to locate themselves on their phones GPS had my hackles raised, but they soon went down upon seeing it – leaving me with no choice but to think had Shakespeare been alive in this century, these additions would probably be just as he liked it.
It’s been almost 30 years since Porky the Poet, aka Phil Jupitus, first brought his unique brand of comic performance poetry to the Fringe festival. Now he’s back, better and certainly bigger than it was before – at least, as far as his fame is concerned: Phil’s waist has shrank with age, and in its place has grown a sense of mindfulness that makes his poetry as insightful as it is wise.
It’s also given him more material. Back when he was no more than a jaded civil servant scribbling in his tea break there was no way he could have waxed lyrical on things like meeting Paul McCartney for the first time, or his volatile attitude toward with Russell Brand’s success. The results are enjoyable (particularly the Brand poem, in which his black feelings toward him are momentarily undone by the sight of a ‘shining dead crow” on the road, it’s head cocked to one side but “no longer thinking”) but as with all name-dropping performances, the laugh is contingent on you knowing the name.
Phil himself is conscious of this it seems, at one point even prefacing a poem with “you’ll either get this or you won’t” – and by the second half he’s moved on to more universal themes like love, science and train delays. Stuck “motionless” between London and Bristol, he finds himself “moved” by a businessman looking up from his Blackberry to a blackberry bush. It’s a brand of poignancy particularly to Porky and immensely enjoyable. There aren’t many comedians who can walk the tears-laughter line. Porky the Poet can – not always, but when he does its beautiful.
I understood the presentation of the fool, Edmund and the daughters as facets of Lear’s subconscious. I appreciated that by transposing the sisters speeches into Lear’s mouth, it showed how it contributed to his demise. But what I didn’t get – and still don’t, even after watching CW Productions’ The Madness of King Lear in its entirety – is the dressing of Lear and the all-purpose other character in silk Chinese pyjamas. Why? Why? Why?
Still, that aside, this is an intriguing production, not least because it incorporates dance and clowning, mixes the script up (we start with the storm scene and move back and forth several times between there and the end) and condenses a cast of 16 characters of mixed gender, ages and status into two middle-aged men. This is surprisingly effective. Not only does it dramatize Lear’s madness in a way the standard, full-length productions find difficult, but it also reminds the audience that Lear is by no means beyond reproach. He is as much Reagan and Goneril’s father as he is Cordelia’s. He might be the victim here, but the ease with which he plays the roles of them and Edgar suggests he is an enemy too.
Though it seems pretentious at first the production is enriched, not undermined by the addition of mime and music, so bear with it. The playing of “silence is sexy” behind Cordelia’s “nothing, my lord” retort prompted more than one laugh, as did the slightly-too-loud playing of heavy metal behind Lear’s plea to the gods for mercy. It’s not for everyone, but if you know and love Lear you’ll appreciate the interpretation CW productions are aiming for, even if the silk pyjamas pass you by.
Thirty-seven plays, performed by three actors in ninety-seven minutes. It’s an ambitious aim, albeit – given that this play was in fact conceived in America in the 1980s, and has been performed consistency at the Fringe for years – no longer quite such a novelty to pull off.
This year it was the turn of the Tread the Board’s company actors Dan Gough, Andy Maguire and John-Robert Partridge, whose frenetic energy and boyish enthusiasm for the ridiculous made them the perfect match for a play whose highlights include an Othello rap and a Tragedy rugby match. Rattling through every one of Shakespeare’s plays (even the Apocrypha, or as they put it “crap ones”) in an accessible and fun way is no mean feat, and not one many actors would be able – or willing – to take on.
Tread the Boards do so, loudly and a bit too aggressively in places but nevertheless with gusto. It’s a clever script, and while their more juvenile moves were grating (running around all the audience making sick noises is barely funny the first time, let alone the fifth), the deliverance of lines like “After a long day, when your daughter’s been raped, you’ve had your hand cut off, she’s had both her hands cut off and you’ve received your messengers’ severed heads, the last thing you want to do is cook” in Titus Andronicus: the Cooking Show is spot on.
There’s a wonderful moment where they explore the workings of Ophelia’s subconscious by splitting the audience into her ego and id and getting them to chant over each other– although while we’re on the subject of audience participation, those of a more retiring disposition would do well to avoid the front row: there’s lots of it and being shy myself I had mixed feelings.
For me, the highlights of this show were when groups and script came together to draw out the universal power of Shakespeare – Daniel Gough reciting to be or not to be and then, in a moment of realisation, breaking down over the death of his hamster – while at the same time retaining that fondly irreverent stance that has made this show a permanent Edinburgh fixture.
My expectations were managed. Tragedies aside, As You Like It has to be my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, and I have seen many great versions: Sam Mendes’ take on it, Helen Mirren as Rosalind, and Kevin Kline delivering the great “All the world’s a stage” speech.
Yet these were thousand, even million pound productions. There is a limit to what you can do with a small budget and an even smaller room at the Fringe, and what As Told By (in association with Greenwich Theatre) did last night with nothing more than a few ill-fitting costumes and a saxophone was nothing short of superb.
Their setting was a speakeasy – a wise choice, given the size of venue albeit somewhat tricky to pull off given the number of trees in the play. Rosalind and Celia flee to a forest after being banished, Rosalind’s already banished father lives in a forest, and the besotted Orlando woos her by putting messages on trees. Still – scribbling on napkins and scattering them around the bar will work right? If nothing else, the As Told By group makes the best of what they’ve got.
Yet there is else. Much else. Their interpretation of the text (I understood every word, and that’s the Shakespearean litmus test), their mercifully uncontrived delivery of the most hackneyed speeches and their fun sense of humour (little touches like Phebe catching peanuts in her mouth, or Celia running back for her whiskey before exiting were particularly notable) all served to lift this play above the confines of fringe theatre into something worthy of its talented actors and actresses. By the time of Rosalind’s surprisingly feminist epilogue – one of the few scenes that really justified the twenties setting – I was as moved as I was by Mirren, if not more so: all of Edinburgh is a stage this month, but not every performer has the ability to transcend that fact in the way As Told By do.
Interview by Clare Finney
David Mills is smart casual. I mean, literally, he is smart casual, with no tie and a soft white shirt unbuttoned at the top. Well, no shit Sherlock, you’re thinking, it’s the name of the show. Under normal circumstances I’d agree with you – but the thing with David Mills is, he is “always, always, always, always smart”.
“Always,” he says again – as if, perhaps, I had missed the point and mistaken his smart casual attire for what he normally wears. Today is an exception because it is “so warm”. Though half ten at night, it is still pleasant enough to sit outside the theatre discussing Mills’ debut fringe show – the preview of which we have just seen him perform at the Canal Café Theatre – and comedy in general, on which Mills holds some strong opinions; and with the small but voluble reaction of the audience behind him, and the excitement of the fringe to come, he’s on a roll.
First in the firing line are young, naïve stand ups. “All these 22-year-olds getting up and complaining about their lives and how they’re so awkward…” he shrugs despairingly. “I mean, God bless them. I love them, but I also want to say “tell me what you think!” It’s one of the reasons, he says, he struggles with Twitter. He doesn’t talk about himself on principle – and if he’s on a bus tweeting and not observing people he’s concerned.
After all, nigh on half of his material is premised on public transport and public affairs. Though American by birth, he has lived in London since 2000, easily long enough to mock the buses. Indeed it is the subject of his opening skit. Having felled both the Queen and the weather with one stone – “the Jubilee, what a tragedy” – he uses the speculation that the whole thing ended in a night bus home to launch into a joyous tirade against the network.
“People are so mean on the tube! Sitting there all huddled thinking ‘fuck you’.” He sniffs. “We on the buses are far more generous with our rage. ‘Fuck you!’ (He spreads his arms wide.) ‘Fuck you!’ It’s far more giving.” He grins. Three minutes, and he’s dealt with the material that many a stand up could dwell on for hours.
Seen here on the page I’m conscious this sounds aggressive – and, in a way, it is. Yet in reality watching Mills live is far more endearing than you’d expect. You cannot help but like him: his grin, his bitchiness, his honesty with regards being a gay, style-obsessed American. Living in Bethnal Green, for example, he finds its dress code there a continual source of joy. “The population is half Islamic, half students there. Everyone is wearing pajamas!” Again, I might have deemed it aggressive – had it not been qualified by both its delivery, and by our chat after the show.
“You know, I actually love that long tunic over a blazer look,” he enthuses. “Tom Ford once said the best dressed man was Hamid Karzai [the president of Afghanistan], and I agree with him. But I’m my mother’s son and I’ve been brought up to get dressed.” In order to do so, he must spurn his pajamas, don a suit, and, if he goes out in the evening he must dress again. No wonder he was so surprised by the informality when he came here. “There’s a lot of unspoken rules in the US you don’t get here. You’d never see someone in a blazer and a T-shirt at a wedding there, for example, whereas here there is always one guy in the photos”. It doesn’t annoy him, but it makes for easy comic fuel.
That said, if there is one area where style bothers Mills more than any other, it is in comedy: for while the material can be anything, it is nothing without the frills. “I can’t sit for an hour if they aren’t saying something with style” he sighs. “Scott [Capurro] has style, Lee Evans has a style – I’m not sure I like it but at least it’s there – but so many don’t, or just don’t think it through” – something which, regardless of whether you agree with his assessment of others, Mills does to extremes.
He wears the tie. He gestures – not to excess, but he certainly uses his hands. His delivery is eloquent, and most notably, takes place atop a stool. For this Mills cites two reasons: the first historical – he used to do cabaret, he stopped because he couldn’t think of any successful cabaret stars who weren’t Dita Von Teese –the second, stylistic. “It’s more conversational – more like a couple of chicks sitting round just talking.” In the show itself he sums it up beautifully as, “you’re all looking comfortable, I’m going to get comfortable too.” There’s a sense of complicity about the move – the way, leaning forward cross-legged, he lets us in on the joke he’s making. Nevertheless, while the stool’s a leveler, there’s no doubt his sights are set on higher things.
“David Mills is headed for the big time” runs the top quote on every sheet of promo material, and indeed that’s what his intention clearly is. “Some day I’d love to play in a massive big arena on a little stool. Just me, in a spotlight saying ‘Hey’,” he muses. “It’s very Chuck Brown, who I’ve been spending a lot of time with on YouTube.” Catching my blank look, Mills translates for me: “You know the new crooner Willie Moon?” I nod. “Well like that – although when it comes to comedians, Dave Allen was really the one for sitting down, in a dapper suit, his whiskey in one hand.”
An Irish comedian best known for his missing finger, Allen is a key source of inspiration to Mills – not for the drink habit (Mills is on lime and soda) but because he is so smart. “I distinctly remember watching him when they showed British stuff at home” he recalls. “I’m a big fan of the old school. It’s a good look” – and it is one he is emulating with success.
That said, however, his homage is skin deep. Mills’ style and stature might be “old school” but his substance is most firmly on the pulse. He reads the papers. He watches the news. He treads on toes – gay marriage, Islam – and makes it funny. He may not know a word of Cheryl Cole, but he deploys the latest gossip to hilarious effect. The show still needs work – “I need to polish it. And I still haven’t done that gay marriage joke to a gay audience, which I should try. I need to try that,” he confesses – but after all: a preview is a preview. Come Edinburgh you can be sure Mills will rise to the occasion admirably – although, of course, he will remain sat down.
David Mills is Smart Casual is on from the 2nd to the 27th August at The Hive. All tickets are free.