The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2017 – Shakespeare for Breakfast, 20th August 2017

Shakespeare for BreakfastI thought I’d make our earliest start of the week on the first morning whilst we were still not that tired – and it’s something we’re really looking forward to, Shakespeare for Breakfast, at C Venues – C on Chambers Street, at 10:00 on Sunday 20th. Here’s the official description: “The Bardic Breakfasters are back! C’s sensational Shakespearience returns for its 26th sell-out year, with free coffee and croissants! A pleasing plethora of pentameter, puns and pastry. Perfect for hardened Bard fans, blank verse virgins and those just after some quality fun over freshly-brewed coffee and freshly-baked croissants. ‘A bouncy and boisterous take on Willie’s work’ (List). ‘Well worth getting out of bed for’ (Independent). ‘No holds Bard’ (FringeGuru.com). ‘Irreverent humour… clever’ (Stage). ‘Side-splitting… glorious’ (BroadwayBaby.com). ‘Full of fun’ (RemoteGoat.com). ‘Sizzling’ (Scottish Daily Express). Free coffee and croissants! Book early.”

Last year we saw them slaughter A Midsummer Night’s Dream and it was just sensational. Not sure which play is getting the croissant treatment this year but it’s bound to be hilarious. Check back shortly after 11am to see just how funny it was. By then the next preview blog should be available to read too.

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2017 – Douglas Walker, Zuschauer, 19th August 2017

Douglas WalkerJust four shows will be enough for our first day – which means our last show of the day is Douglas Walker: Zuschauer, at the Underbelly, George Square (The Wee Coo) at 22:40 on Saturday 19th. This is how it’s described on the website: “Can the audience change a show just by watching it? Douglas invites you to find out, by watching his latest concatenation of mind-searing comic absurdities. Then watching it again, but differently. Zuschauer is a very silly exploration of what an audience brings to a show. Not what they literally bring, although any spare crockery you don’t need would really help. There’s more to watching comedy than sitting in the dark; it’s a big responsibility. Who watches the watchers? ‘Too clever for its own good’ (BroadwayBaby.com). ‘Bold and thought-provoking’ **** (List). Best Comedy Award Adelaide Fringe 2016.”

This sounds like it will deconstruct what makes a comedy stand-up experience, and judging from what I’ve read about Mr Walker’s previous fringe shows, I think this will turn the show on its head. Always love a challenge! And it’s always exciting to see someone new, and I’ve never heard of Mr Walker before, so I have high hopes. It’s all over by 11.40 pm, so check back shortly afterwards and see my initial feedback as to how much we enjoyed it. By then the next preview blog, for tomorrow morning’s first show, should be available to read too.

Yes that was very nicely subversive! A series of sketches and songs, with a running story about someone receiving money by post out of the blue. It all weaves together smartly and I found it very funny. Some parts were thoroughly surreal! I enjoyed Mr Walker’s characterisations and the considerable variety of content that went into that show. Nice one!

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2017 – Radio, 19th August 2017

RadioOur next play is Radio, produced by Sunscreen Productions at the studio at Paradise in Augustines at 21:05 on Saturday 19th. Here’s the description on the website: “You ate someone’s crisps? You shoplifted once? You cheated on your girlfriend? You killed your grandmother? What would the voice on the radio say if it started to spill your deepest, darkest secrets to your housemates… In this post-truth world of fake news, of contradictory narratives, of technology and Trump, seven students are poised on the cusp of entering into a world that doesn’t want them. But the voice on the radio has other ideas. A blisteringly dark, funny new play about the lies, loves, and dirt under everyone’s fingernails. ‘Dazzling’ ***** (OxfordStudent.com on Attempts On Her Life).”

It’s one of those almost sci-fi elements of modern life that there might be a ghost in the machine that might just be human enough to answer back, and I confess the thought of what your radio might have heard about your private life is a bit startling! Hopefully this will be funny, savage and thought-provoking. Check back after 10.15 pm to see what we thought of it, and by then the next preview blog should be available to read too.

I really enjoyed that play, mainly for the performances, which were mostly excellent. The characters were very convincingly portrayed, and very lively to boot. It wasn’t really sci-fi or supernatural, in fact the “radio” element was probably the least effective part. But it was a great depiction of a house full of students at each other’s throats. And it also asked significant questions about consent. Congratulations guys on a great show.

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2017 – Dave Johns: I, Fillum Star, 19th August 2017

Dave JohnsOur first comedy show for the week is Dave Johns: I, Fillum Star, at the Pleasance Dome, (King Dome) at 19:00 on Saturday 19th. Here’s what it’s about: “What happens to a comedian when he’s plucked from obscurity by master film maker Ken Loach and cast in the title role of one of the most acclaimed and talked about British films of recent years? I, Daniel Blake became a beacon for social realism and, for Dave Johns, a rollercoaster ride of red carpet surrealism. From The Cannes Film Festival to the BAFTAs, he was there, wide-eyed. Now, he’s back doing the thing he loves best – making people laugh.”

i-daniel-blake-5-797467For me, I Daniel Blake was one of the highlights of last year. I knew that Dave Johns was a comic but I had never watched one of his shows, so I am really excited to see what he’s like in the flesh. I’m sure his observations on the trappings of film life will be an eye-opener! It’s an hour long, so check back after 8.15 pm to see what it was like, and by then the next preview blog should be available to read too.

That was a very funny and delightfully honest account of how the fillum success has changed Dave’s life. He comes across as a really genuine and funny guy who can’t quite believe his luck, but is going to make the most of it anyway! A real pleasure.

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2017 – 51 Shows in 8 Days! First Show – Commons, 19th August 2017

Edinburgh FringeGreetings, gentle reader! This is the time of the year when, if you subscribe to my blog, you get bombarded with several emails a day alerting you to the fact that we’ve seen yet another show at the Edinburgh Fringe – and I apologise for the inconvenience in advance. This is our fourth visit to the Edinburgh Fringe, and it’s now an annual pilgrimage that I can’t bear the thought of missing. In 2014 (just a weekend visit) we aimed to see 20 shows and managed 19; in 2015, we planned on 52 shows and hit 50; last year we set our sights slightly lower, planning to see 47 events, and managing 45. This year I’ve gone ambitious again and we’re aiming for 51!

As in previous years, I’m proposing to prepare a preview-type blog post in advance for each show we’re seeing and then add my instant reactions in the few minutes I have afterwards, between shows. I think it’s worked well enough in the past – because it would be impossible to write a full post about each show, there just wouldn’t be time! I’ll try to make it so that there’s always one preview blog on the go at any one time, so you always know what we’re seeing next

CommonsSo to kick off our Edinburgh week, our first show is Commons, produced by The Mermaids Performing Arts at the Argyle Theatre at the Space on North Bridge at 17:10 on Saturday 19th. Here’s the official promotional blurb: “One hotel room. One impossible scandal. Two men who don’t know what they want. Through the story of Marcus and Sam, watch the machinations of both a complex political satire and an emotionally fraught love story. This highly original piece of new writing portrays the romance of a middle-aged MP and the rent boy he employs. Watch the power dynamic shift between the two in this darkly comic analogy of the UK’s road to Brexit. Set in one claustrophobic hotel room, snapshots of Marcus and Sam’s failed romance play out in reverse chronology. Thought-provoking, biting and at times hilarious.”

I love a bit of reverse chronology – like in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. As someone still coming to terms with the horrors of Brexit, I’m looking forward to seeing how it gets tied in with a scandalous affair. Check back after 6.00 pm to see how it went, and by then the next preview blog should be available to read too.

And if you’re up in Edinburgh, have a brilliant Fringe!

And it’s a fairly good start. An interesting play, well constructed, concerning an MP who screws up both his country and his home life. Maybe the acting was a little under-delivered? But all in all, quite thought provoking and with a few unexpected laughs. 

Review – Much Ado About Nothing, Oxford Shakespeare Company, Wadham College, Oxford 15th August 2017

Much Ado About NothingSome Shakespeare plays are a constant part of your life; others you encounter every so often and renew your affectionate acquaintance with them; and yet others you come to later in life. I have to confess, gentle reader, that for most of my adult life I lived without Much Ado About Nothing. True, I studied it as an undergraduate, but it didn’t tickle my funnybone or move me like Twelfth Night or As You Like It. For years I felt that the warring wannabe lovers trick was much better done in The Taming of the Shrew (until my friend the Countess of Cockfosters showed me the error of my ways). It wasn’t until I was 35 that I actually saw it on stage, at the Pendley Shakespeare Festival in Tring; and then last time at Chichester in Christopher Luscombe’s amazing production. Much Ado is one of Shakespeare’s most loved comedies; still, there’s something about it that just doesn’t quite do it for me… and I know it’s my fault, not Shakespeare’s. Dear old chap.

Benedick and Beatrice having a nice timeShakespeare works so well in an open, garden setting, and there’s nowhere more atmospheric, charming and beautiful than at Wadham College. We’ve been coming to the Oxford Shakespeare Company productions every year since 2005, and at one point I didn’t think we were going to be lucky enough with the weather to manage it this year. Fortunately, a last minute sunny dry day was forecast for the last Tuesday of the run – and so we’ve kept our unbroken record!

Benedick and BeatriceDirector Nicholas Green has written some interesting and helpful notes in the programme about the production. It’s set in Messina, Italy, in 1943 at the time of the Allies invasion of Sicily, and thereafter the rest of Italy, and the toppling of Mussolini. And outwardly, the company have made a very successful job of authentically presenting that time. The military and noble costumes of Don Pedro, Don John and Claudio show great attention to detail. They even researched the amount of smoking that took place at the time, and faithfully recreate that on stage with unbleached Rizlas. However, I don’t feel that this specific time setting enhances the story at all; maybe it gives extra thrust to the cowardly fleeing of Don John – maybe – but it certainly didn’t impact on the human relationships between Benedick and Beatrice.

Leonarto and BorachioAnd that was for me the stumbling-block for the whole production – I couldn’t really get a grip on its creative vision. I couldn’t work out what it was trying to say that would make it different from any other production. Maybe I was spoiled by the Chichester production last year. I know that the difference of financial resources, for example, between the two companies makes comparisons pointless, but even so they’re still dealing with the same words, the same characters, the same story. Don’t get me wrong; this is an enjoyable production, with many good performances and plenty of funny moments. The scene where Benedick overhears Leonato, Claudio and Don Pedro talking of Beatrice’s love for him is played beautifully, with just the right level of pantomime fun when Benedick gets accidentally soaked by being on the receiving end of each of the other’s glasses of wine. The little non-Shakespearian asides, notably from Benedick, Don John, Leonato and Margaret, work really well and add some extra knowing fun to the proceedings.

David ChittendenOf the serious aspects of this play (there are many), the whole scenario of Claudio believing the lies about Hero and then confronting her on their wedding day was magnificently played, and I thought Samuel Simmonds as Claudio and Robyn Sinclair as Hero were absolutely superb throughout, on what is, for both of them, their professional stage debut. Musically, I found the show a little patchy; Ms Sinclair’s performance as Balthazar of Sigh No More was truly beautiful and I thought Nicholas Lloyd Webber’s composition for it was stunning. However, the ending – King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid – was for me a bit of a damp squib. There was a pause at the end before the final applause because everyone was expecting something more.

Robyn SinclairChristopher Jordan and Ivy Corbin made a very good Benedick and Beatrice; both convincing with their airs and graces but not afraid to look like a fool either. Mr Jordan has just the right amount of pomposity and Ms Corbin just the right amount of what Theresa May might call “bloody difficult woman”. It was great to see David Chittenden back with the OSC; his performance as Doctor Caius in The Merry Wives of Windsor (2005) to this day cracks us up whenever we think about it (which is surprisingly often). His Leonarto is a complex character: avuncular and fun-loving on the one hand, and savagely recriminatory on the other. Mr Chittenden weaves these traits into a deep and credible portrayal of an essentially kind man driven to hell by another man’s lies.

Samuel SimmondsChristopher Laishley’s hearty Don Pedro is full of spirit and decency, equally at home when teasing his friends as when he is ruling Aragon. He also has enormous fun as a trigger-happy member of Dogberry’s watch and as the “demure” Ursula, whose interval-introducing speech probably got the loudest laugh of the night. I confess that, whilst her Margaret was cheeky and effervescent, I didn’t really like Heather Johnson’s portrayal of Dogberry. It’s a difficult character to make both credible and funny, and for me I’m afraid it failed on both counts. It was very frenetic, and relied heavily on babbling Spaghetti English (one of my pet hates) so that it was really hard to understand most of what she said. Thinking back to Nick Haverson’s performance in Chichester, I realise just what a role-defining performance that was. I think the identity of Dogberry simply got lost somewhere by trading on the production’s wartime Italian setting.

Peter RaeBut for me the standout performance was from Peter Rae as Don John. Shakespeare provides even less explanation for Don John’s desire to do evil than he does for Iago hatred of Othello. This Don John is suave and patronising but not above participating in some comic business, which brings him more into line with the other characters, and removes some of his aloofness. Just one disparaging flick of his cigarette on his first entrance and you knew he was in control. His authority and stage presence were second to none, and I hope he comes back to perform with the company again!

So all in all, a good production but probably not a great one; still, not being that much of a Much Ado fan – maybe it’s me. Look forward to next year’s production!

Review – La Cage Aux Folles, Milton Keynes Theatre, 12th August 2017

La Cage Aux FollesHere’s an old favourite that never fails to please. Mrs Chrisparkle and I first saw La Cage Aux Folles at the London Palladium in 1986 (she was Miss Duncansby then) with George Hearn and Denis Quilley in the lead roles, and wrestler turned actor Brian Glover (remember him?) as the ghastly Dindon. We next saw the Menier’s hugely successful production in 2009 at the Playhouse Theatre, with Roger Allam and Robert Maskell as Georges and Albin; and now the UK has its first ever touring production, which has been running all year and has finally reached Milton Keynes before its last two weeks coming up in Brighton.

LCAF They are what they areI’m sure you know the story – it’s based on the 1973 French stage farce by Jean Poiret, and the subsequent smash hit film which appeared in 1978. Georges runs La Cage Aux Folles, a St-Tropez nightclub of dubious reputation and glamorous girls (the Cagelles, who are really boys), headed by the one and only Zaza, who, from nine to five is Albin, Georges’ husband. On one aberrant night of bliss twenty-four years earlier, Georges had a fling with Sybil, an English muffin who trapped the helpless chap (that’s Albin’s account anyway) into a spot of how’s-your-father; result: little Jean-Michel, whom Georges and Albin have brought up as a fine, upstanding and (shock, horror) heterosexual young man in love with Anne. LCAF Not sure if Georges is going to win this oneThe good news is that Anne is also in love with him; the bad news is that Anne’s father is Dindon, the head of the Tradition, Family and Morality Party. He’s a bully and a bigot, and his party’s stated aim is to close down all the drag clubs in town. You see the problem. Les Dindons want to meet Jean-Michel’s parents before giving their blessing to the liaison. The problem’s getting worse. With Sybil nowhere on the horizon, how are Georges and Albin (or rather, Georges and Zaza) going to handle it? You’ll have to watch it to find out.

LCAF Georges et AlbinThe music and lyrics are by Jerry Herman – yes, he of Hello Dolly and Mack and Mabel – and for the most part the songs are amongst his finest. With Anne on my Arm has all the naïve and simple charm of My Fair Lady’s On The Street Where You Live; Look Over There is a delicate, heartfelt description of what it feels like when you love someone else so much, that just to look at them tells you all you need to know. And there are two great showstoppers that elevate the art of musical theatre into another sphere: the loud and proud self-assertiveness anthem I Am What I Am; and, my personal favourite, The Best of Times, with its huge positive energy, reminding us all to live life for the present, to do what you love and to love what you do. I’ve not been able to stop singing it to myself since Saturday.

LCAF CagellesI’ve been thinking about the best word to use to describe this show. Professional? committed? exciting? extravagant? It’s all these; but above all, it’s a truly lovely production. It’s full of heart, and positivity, and kindness, and warmth. Yes, there is glamour, which frequently gets its balloon burst when the wigs come off and we see the Cagelles backstage as just ordinary working guys; and yes, there is humour, most spectacularly with the cringe-inducing dinner with the Dindons. There is pantomime, which surprised me; for example, when Dindon tells his wife to get their bags, the audience all respond with a long “oooooh”; and when she refuses, we all cheer. But above all there is a moral force behind it that says love always wins; therefore, lovely strikes me as by far the best description!

LCAF Big revealThe cast have loads of fun making it as enjoyable for us the audience as possible. You have to hand it to the Cagelles – each and every guy is a fantastic dancer and incredibly effective in drag; you really do have to look twice – sometimes three or four times – to be sure they haven’t sneaked some girls in. Their singing and dancing ensemble works really well and I loved how they had their own characteristics; Jordan Livesey as Hannah sure knows how to crack a whip, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a high kick as that of Oliver Proudlock-John’s Mercedes. The original production had twelve cagelles; this has seven, and I think that works better because you get to know each one just a little bit more.

LCAF Albin et les CagellesPaul F Monaghan’s Dindon is a truly repellent git (or should that be gîte); gruff, pompous, and a marvellous bellower of the word “homosexual!” as an insult. I really liked his interactions at the dinner table when he was being treated to more and more of the wine – very nicely done. Su Douglas is also great as his mousey downtrodden wife who toes the line – up to a point. Samson Ajewole stole every scene as the effervescent Jacob, redefining camp and thoroughly deserving his huge round of applause. And what a tall chap he is! LCAF Albin et les Cagelles en rougeI really enjoyed Dougie Carter and Alexandra Robinson as Jean-Michel and Anne; Mr Carter brought simple plaintive emotion to his songs, and it would be a tough cookie indeed who didn’t feel a little ocular moistness at his reprise of Look Over There. The magnificent Marti Webb brings power and presence to restaurateur Jacqueline; you wish the character had more songs, but you’ll never forget the way she takes up the challenge with The Best of Times.

LCAF Albin et JacquelineBut, of course, at the heart of the show is the relationship between Georges and Albin, here superbly portrayed by Adrian Zmed and John Partridge. I have to confess I’d never heard of Mr Zmed before – but one look at his photo in the programme and Mrs C was very enthusiastic, having been brought up on TJ Hooker. He’s got a great singing voice and brings a touch of natural class and elegance to the role of Georges, as well as smartly underplaying the humour of the part. But the evening belongs to John Partridge as Albin – surely the role he was born to play. I loved how he gently Manchesterised the character – his “hurt” Albin was much more believable than I’ve seen the character played before. LCAF Cagelles in flightThere are plenty of opportunities for him to really express himself on the stage – his hilarious Masculinity scene for instance, where he goes delightfully over the top trying to be a credible “bloke”, and his La Cage Aux Folles number where he just about holds on to his character whilst Zaza gets up close and personal with the audience, and the orchestra. After that the audience has absolutely no pretension to “good theatre behaviour” for the rest of the show; we just went with the flow and did whatever we felt like in response to what we saw on stage. I would imagine that’s a different scene almost every time.

LCAF Albin et GeorgesBut it was Mr P’s performance of I Am What I Am that absolutely takes your breath away. My goose bumps and had goose bumps. I had no idea you could reach down and find such emotion in that song: a heartache that turns to triumph as Albin/Zaza redoubles his determination to live his life, his way, and to hell with the rest of us. Mr Partridge holds perfect control through this epiphany sequence. It closes the first half of the show and the audience go into the interval dazed with its brilliance.

The best of times is now. Or at least, for another two weeks. It closes in Brighton on 26th August. We loved it. If you can, go!

Production photos by Pamela Raith