Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra & Sarah Connolly


Edinburgh International Festival

Usher Hall


25 August ONLY


It is most interesting to go to a concert where the entire programme is new to me.  This concert began with songs written by Alma Mahler while she was still Alma Schindler, and ended with a symphony created from draft full scores and sketches left by her husband Gustav which were orchestrated and fleshed out by Deryck Cooke and the brothers Colin and David Matthews.


Alma was a talented musician and composer but her husband-to-be forbade her to continue composing after their marriage, saying “the role of the ‘composer’, the ‘bread-winner’, is mine; yours is that of the loving partner, the sympathetic comrade”.  Towards the end of his life he looked at some of her songs and declared them to be really fine, and insisted that they were published.  (Why the hell hadn’t he looked at them before?  Condemning the creations without ever having looked at them is even more insulting than simply forbidding the continued exercise of her obvious talent…)


That apart, Sarah Connolly did a marvellous job of selling these songs to us: her rich voice soaring above the orchestra and sinking to a pianissimo, while Yannick Nèzet-Sèguin conjured expressive atmospheric orchestral tapestries through which the voice wove its melodies.  My favourite song, from the lyrics’ point of view, was Waldseligkeit (Bliss in the Woods), a setting of a Rainer Maria Rilke poem, whose simplicity was matched by the vocal line and delicate scoring.  The lyrics of the others didn’t speak so deeply to me, or impress me as particularly out of the ordinary – but then this period is not my favourite for Lieder, or indeed, orchestral music.


The symphony was also very interesting.  I was glad to have programme notes, which helped me make sense of and recognise some of what I was hearing: and watching the conductor’s movements also made the music clearer.  There were some excellent bits, some less so – I wonder what alterations, amendments, improvements Mahler might have made if he had had time?  The first two movements contrasted strongly with the 3rd and 4th, which were written at the time Mahler discovered that his wife had been having an affair with the architect Walter Gropius: personal anguish suffuses the music, and the score has written comments expressing this above the staves.  Mahler did all he could to win back his wife’s love, and the final movement brings about a resolution and forgiveness, and ends peacefully.


Again, it’s not my type of music, too surging and rushing and loosely-woven: but it would be interesting to compare the piece with Mahler’s previous nine symphonies.  The conducting was again fabulous: I’m delighted that Yannick Nèzet-Sèguin becomes the Music Director Designate of the Metropolitan Opera in New York next year and takes over completely in 2020. It was a joy to watch him, especially when he abandoned his baton for the final few pages of the score, his hands delicately conjuring the final gently loving moments from the superb Rotterdam Symphony Orchestra.


The audience – and the orchestra – were loud in their applause at the end of the piece, and soloists and sections were called on to rise and receive their own applause before they and we were allowed to go home.

Mary Woodward

Thrones! The musical!



Assembly George Square Gardens (Venue 17)

-Aug 29th



Don’t know the difference between Dragonglass and Dothraki? Then let me show you the edfringe festival book because this is not the show for you. This is a razor sharp parody of the almighty ratings behemoth Game of Thrones that is made strictly for the fans.

For  a show that celebrates the worst in humanity, you need some really warped minds to run with the premise of Thrones, thankfully the team behind Baby Wants Candy are about as warped as you could get. Where else could you get a musical number between Khal Drogo raping Daenerys and a rap about the Red Wedding and there being too many knives! It’s constantly absurd, inventive and utterly delightful.

If you have a dark, silly sense of humour prepare to belly laugh yourself into a coma. For this is an absolutely hilarious little show. Sometimes the jokes are obvious, sometimes the jokes are fiendishly clever, but it never misses a trick, getting laughs out of all the sex and death in the show (and we all know there’s plenty of that.)

For those who have already seen Thrones it is worth a return visit. For it has now been fully updated to include season 6, including a surprisingly tender song about Hodor trying to save his friends and a brilliant recurring cameo from Donald Trump who wants to ‘Make Westeros great again.’ I can’t wait to see what they do with season 7 next year.

It’s absurd, bonkers and bloody wonderful, make sure you get a ticket.

Martin Miller

Desiree Burch: This Is Evolution

desiree burch


Heroes @ Bob’s Blundabus (Venue212)

Aug 4-29



It took me 3 weeks of reviewing shows to find the funniest comedian I have ever seen in person.  She left me breathless with laughter for the first time this Fringe.

Desiree Burch is more than a comedian but that doesn’t detract from the fact she is a brilliant one.  She is also a Fag Hag, Writer, Actor and Teacher.

And she’s going to teach you.  You’re going to learn about how men who send dick pics and how they just need a hug and a muffin, how skinny white women compete at self-criticism, the fact that you’re going to shit your pants at some point in your life and if you’re lucky she might throw some quantum physics in the mix too.

She is hilarious, empowering, vivacious and uplifting.  Her tales of family dysfunction, what it’s like to just not want kids, racism as a hobby, dating the guy that is exactly like your dad, having the face that says “ask me directions immediately”, dating younger or older guys, all of it is told with such a sense of joy and acceptance of the diversity and ridiculousness of life.

There’s no sense of bitterness, only beauty and wonder at our shared experiences and eccentric differences as people.

I’m sitting on the top deck of a bus, listening to this gorgeous, witty, utterly fabulous and loving big black woman holding court, and I imagine Rosa Parks sitting beside me, both of us with our glasses steaming up with shared warmth and laughter.

Simply the best.  Oh, and her poster is a depiction of her made out of dicks. Double win.

Breakfast Plays: Tech Will Tear Us Apart (?): How to Ruin Someone’s Life from the Comfort of your Own Beanbag

2016BREAKFA_TR (1)


Traverse Theatre

Venue 15


16 – 28 Aug (not 22)


 Darren Davidson, self-styled security consultant, penetration expert and convicted hacker, is giving a lecture in which he describes how easy it is to access personal information via the internet.  He tells us “the only freedom available today is to be anonymous” and thus avoid being under surveillance, being surveyed, coerced, or hacked.  He describes how he exacted revenge on someone who had simply pissed him off by his posts on a forum: but in the middle of his PowerPoint presentation, things start to go wrong and his own hidden personae are revealed.


I’m in two minds about the dichotomy in this piece: the transition between the two parts didn’t entirely convince me.  The lecture and the casual way he described totally ruining someone’s life chilled me even more than the discovery that these things could be done, but David’s disintegration after the inexplicable intrusions into his PowerPoint presentation and exposure of his alter ego L00la seemed less credible; the rapid ‘excuse’ for his behaviour – a disrupted and insecure childhood – somehow didn’t ring true.  I accept that an insecure life could make one create and cling to the imaginary friend who possesses all the longed-for personal attributes and power and is able to threaten mighty corporations and wreak havoc and destruction, but I was not convinced by the acting.


The plays are put on with only one day’s full rehearsal: I should like to see this piece again after more work had been done on the presentation…but maybe that’s me being hypercritical?  David’s assurance – even arrogance – and his failure to realise or convey any sorrow or regret for what he had done was disturbing, his motives for his actions seemed to me weak: but was this an illustration of the complete divorce from reality and overwhelming power kick that can suppress conscience or any feeling for one’s fellow-creatures because one is operating in virtual reality?


This was another sad commentary on people’s isolation, insecurity, and fear, and another chilling imagining of the future.  I don’t know how much of what was suggested is actually possible right now – but it confirms my deep suspicion of Facebook and other social media, and indeed the whole Internet phenomenon, convenient though so many aspects of it are!


Mary Woodward

Richard Wilson – The Good Fight: Shakespeare Today


Edinburgh Book Festival

Garden Theatre, Charlotte Square


25 August ONLY


Oh my!  It was good to know I wasn’t the only audience member to have got the Richard Wilsons confused – this was not Victor Meldrew, but an academic who certainly knew his stuff but expected that we knew it too – and alas, I didn’t…


The first, quite lengthy, part of his talk was about all his previous books, ostensibly to show how he arrived at the current one which he was there to promote, but maybe also  suggesting that we should buy them too.  We then turned to his latest book Worldly Shakespeare: the Theatre of our Goodwill and were introduced to various chapters and the “new ideas and insights” Stuart Kenny promised us in his introduction.  Richard Wilson’s stated aim is to put Shakespeare into his historical context and bring him into contemporary society, pointing out his relevance to today – I don’t know that he succeeded with me.


Considering Hamlet:  Wilson sees the Elizabethan Jesuits as the terrorists of their day, and pointed out that terrorists can be seen as good or bad in people’s minds.  He suggested that ‘to be or not to be’ was less about suicide, self-destruction, as about mutual suicide, suicide bombing – “self-slaughter as revenge”.  Hamlet stands “on the battlements of Europe” – (is he looking for/ expecting a messiah? A monster?) and sees himself as a messianic scourge.


Twelfth Night: he connected the Shah of Persia with Queen Elizabeth as rulers of the only two states having a very close link between church and state.  Elizabeth sent envoys to the Shah: quite what that had to do with the play was lost on me.  Troilus & Cressida, which I don’t know well: he said there was an attempt in the 1590s to re-establish the Olympic idea of peace, general amnesty, and universal brotherhood by staging the Cotswold Games, which Shakespeare would have known well, and suggested that many people in England were looking to the future James VI to come south and bring peace and harmony, bringing Catholic and Protestant together- agonism rather than antagonism [the former, Wikipedia informs me, is a political theory suggesting the possibility of being brought together through difference].


Frankly, most of the talk was either above my head or poorly expressed: it was potentially interesting, while not exactly being intelligible.  I’m not sure at whom it was aimed, but the interface between ordinary audience and academic was not crossed or integrated in my case anywhere near as successfully as Emma Smith did in her recent talk. There was much to think about and maybe research later, not least Wilson’s contention that William Shakespeare didn’t write everything that’s in his plays today, and that many of them were re-written after his death to take account of political developments and changes in attitude – I might well get some of Wilson’s books from the library to see whether he makes any more sense on the page than he did in person, but from the passages he read out, I have my doubts…


I hope other audience members fared better than I did!


Mary Woodward

The Toad Knew


Edinburgh International Festival

King’s Theatre


24 – 24 Aug



Stamping, cheering, clapping greeted the final curtain of this extraordinary show.


Another extraordinary piece – a dreamscape with recurring motifs, including the enigmatic toad.


Having just come out of the latest Star Trek prequel my mind was predisposed to think of space ships and alien visitors, so they were what came first to mind when the star-spangled red velvet curtain rose to disclose a wonderfully mobile collection of illuminated dishes floating above the stage, rising, falling, separating, clustering, lighting up, changing colour, with the largest central dish opening downward-facing petals to form a giant flower whose central illuminated golden calyx descended – bringing enlightenment?  It also became the cradle or crow’s nest into which an aerialist descended headfirst, only to rise again and twist and coil herself around the dishes’ cabling before descending to earth to continue her gyrations.


There was a wonderful singer in a crimson cloak, a small Baldrick-like character and an enigmatic Man in a Cloak, a long-haired contortionist who could hold her breath underwater for a worryingly long amount of time: and the amazing James Thiérrée, whose brainchild this extraordinary piece is.  Acrobat, poet, clown, magician, musician, film actor; the great-grandson of Eugene O’Neill, grandson of Charlie Chaplin and son of Chaplin’s daughter Victoria and Jean-Baptistery Thiérrée, who created many legendary French circus companies; an amazing pedigree which helps explain his many talents.


Elastic body, expressively mobile face, incredibly flexible hands and an imagination which knows no bounds: who else could imagine a staircase that builds itself as he climbs it and then becomes the whirling support for breath-taking acrobatic skills, or visualise a contest for dominance between man and piano?  Baldrick, with two trays, one large and one small, becomes the centre of a maelstrom of plates which proliferate invisibly and even become the shell of a tortoise which emerges into the mayhem – and, of course, there is the toad….


In Thierry’s own words “I do not make theatre to explain what shakes our inner workings, but rather to roam around.  So, roam if you want to.  Let’s live together, here, for a few moments, and perhaps foolish things can become meaningful, on the horizon at the tips of our noses.


The toad will tell us.”


And it did.


Mary Woodward


Mark Thomas: The Red Shed



Traverse Theatre

Venue 15

Times various

6 – 28 Aug, not Monday


 Mark Thomas: such passion, such rage, such superb command of audience, bringing them from uproarious laughter to silence and tears in the blink of an eye.  A consummate entertainer, a brilliant writer, a passionate believer in solidarity: politicians are doing their best to divide and rule by “concentrate on self and bugger everyone else, chum”…. so we must do it differently!


Mark’s first gigs were performed in The Red Shed in Wakefield – the 47-foot-long wooden Socialist club.  For its 50th anniversary this year, Mark has created a show combining an account of his own political coming of age with memories of the people and events that inspired him.  The show centres on a fascinating quest – Mark wants to know whether a very striking story which he often tells is in fact true, or whether he’s amended the truth to make the story better, and in trying to unearth the truth, he realises that people’s versions of the same event will differ in big or little ways.  What is the truth?  How much are you justified in telling a lie that enhances the story in a story that’s about unearthing the truth of something?


As ever in Mark’s performances, there is rage, anger at what has been done, what we are permitting to be done, to us.  What does it achieve?  Many, constant, murmurs of agreement in the audience, but who will do something about it? What can be done?  What good does raging do?  Rage over the losses, celebrate the spirit that won’t lie down: make sure that the memories and the people aren’t lost, make sure that we have somewhere to go to remember and derive strength and inspiration from those who went before.


I can do no better than to quote from Mark’s long-standing friend and co-conspirator, Peter Hirst:


Those of us who believe that we have a responsibility to leave the world and the people in it in better condition than we found it, need positive stories and places where those stories will get heard.  A repository of hope, where the belief is that, in the end, our endeavours will result in a world that is a fairer and better place.  Far too much of the story telling has been in the hands of the media, owned and controlled by those with a big share in the status quo.


This show celebrates 50 years of achievement: I wonder where we will be in another 50?

Mary Woodward


Aaron Calvert: Mind Games

aaron calvert

Cabaret (Magic)

La Belle Angele (venue 301)

Aug 6-28 (not 17)



What do you do after studying for 5 years to become a doctor?  Become a hypnotist instead!  That’s what the delectable Aaron Calvert did, anyway.

With smouldering good looks, a stunning physique and a quicksilver wit, Calvert had a massive audience at La Belle Angele in the palm of his hand.

Looking dapper, his energy is high as he bounds around the stage from prop to prop, giving full explanation of each of the tricks.  He starts by engaging the entire audience in a game of rock, paper, scissors which then (geek delight) turns into rock, paper, scissors, spock, lizard on stage with a selected audience member.

He’s a psychological PT Barnum, never missing a trick (even when he seems to) and brings everything full circle.  He also takes a holistic approach to hypnosis, always taking time to advise caution or focus on the benefit of the process.  He promises not to embarrass or degrade any participants.

I had the privilege of being brought up on stage (don’t think because you’re sitting 12 rows back that you’re going to be safe!) to be hypnotised.  If you’ve never been hypnotised before, just think of it like subbing for the first time.  And what a top!  He had me totally at ease but also with tingles of excitement (I thought I was going to have a giggle fit on stage) and his voice and touch sent me into another place (ok, sub space) without hesitation.  I felt like I was floating in water and there was nothing I wouldn’t do if instructed (as with certain other activities, trust helps).

Suffice to say, it was a very enjoyable experience.  The audience were totally into what he was doing and there was an electricity in the room (and it’s a big room to fill).

Just a couple of niggling points.  The NLP trigger words were a little pronounced and a lot of the games are familiar as in I’ve seen very similar before .  But this is him at the start of his career and as he progresses I’ve no doubt he’ll grow his repertoire and become even more skilled.  Failing that he can always jump careers again and become a very accomplished Dom.

Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs (EIF)



EIF @ The Hub

Aug 6-27 (not 14,15,22)



We ascend the cobbles of the Royal Mile, up from the Old Town slums and tenements, the caves of Free Fringe venues far below us.  We walk into The Hub and we realise – this is not the Fringe any more.  Oh no, this is the Edinburgh International Festival.  This is cabaret at a country club.  We are as Gods as we are shown to our booth, an acolyte in a Hub t-shirt rushes to take our order, nothing is too much trouble.  This is the whitest, most middle-class thing we’ve ever been to.

Cumming kicks off his set with Annie Lennox’s “Why” and it’s stunning.  His native lilt and rolling rrrr is delicious and heartening.  He’s resplendent all in black, everything is polished and sexy (even the carbon fiber cello matches immaculately).

The set list almost borders on eclectic, though tends to flip between Sondheim (no complaints here) and Miley/Adele/Gaga/Katy Perry with a few more obscure musical numbers along the way and a jungle for a condom advert that he made with Ricki Lake .  It’s all a bit tongue in cheek and generally fabulous but to be honest I could have taken more sappy than this.  I wanted torch songs, something to leave me tearful with unrequited love and ennui.

The anecdotes in between numbers get better and juicier as the show goes on.  Tidbits and insights into his time on The Good Wife, flashbacks to performing on the Fringe years ago – and then the best…a Liza story.  Gasp!  My little gay heart fluttered as he dished the ultimate dish.

Everything is simply wonderful.  Except when it isn’t.  Cumming talks at one point about connection and people connecting with each other.  However there are a couple of very uncomfortable connections with the audience.  On this night there is a person in the front row who is laughing incessantly and Cumming tells her to get herself together or go.  The really awkward one comes with his 3rd jibe at latecomers (let’s face it, it’s up to the venue staff to admit latecomers, so take it up with them, Alan).  What he couldn’t see from the stage and due to the lights was this last latecomer had entered in a wheelchair and was walking very slowly and carefully with the aid of two walking sticks.  But most of us in the audience did see that. Very hashtag awkward.

There was also the option to spend another tenner on Club Cumming tickets where he would stay and DJ, sing and hang out with the audience until 3am.  What a bargain!  If you were prepared for it, had childcare organised, weren’t getting home by public transport or had the energy.  It would have been lovely to be told ahead of time by the Hub.

All in all an enchanting evening, it feels almost like visiting some faerie prince in his castle. But you’re trailing mortal mud on your shoes and he is casting an elven level of shade at you for it.






Just the Tonic at the Caves. (Venue 88)

August  16th to 28th (no breaks)



This is an hilarious hour with many highlights. Two young guys and a young woman trick each other repeatedly before revealing they were “only acting”, and this begins a very entertaining hour in which the three become comic monsters, “Little Timmy” becomes a centre of attention, the three become one single human entity – and there is a rousing finale that will send you away with a very big smile.

There is some comic play with the nature of the environment in this cave, and there is some very warm and vivid audience involvement. The venue was pretty full when I saw this; there is a whole barrel of laughs to be enjoyed if you join this crowd.

Tony Challis