Review – The Curing Room, Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh, 10th August 2014

Curing RoomI wanted to give this play a few days to settle in my mind before putting “virtual pen to paper”. When I was deciding which shows we wanted to see at the Edinburgh fringe, a top priority was for them to be challenging, experimental, daring performances that we’d be unlikely to see nearer to home. A play where seven naked Soviet soldiers are chucked in a cellar by the Nazis and left to die, and who therefore resort to cannibalism in order for some of them to survive, sounded like it ticked all those boxes.

At first the nudity feels quite shocking and bizarre – it’s just something you don’t often see on a stage right from the start of a play. Normally stage nudity would happen in combination with a sense of comedy or eroticism. But this is just a depiction of man at his most raw, basic and defenceless. The shock quickly changes to acceptance as an almost natural form of existence, which in turn soon grows into empathy as you imagine how you would react under the same circumstances. Being soldiers, they’re automatically programmed to respond to rank, and amongst those seven soldiers you’ve got a Captain, a Senior Lieutenant, a Lieutenant, and a Junior Lieutenant, as well as three Privates. But without the outward show of uniform, that sense of rank is removed. Each individual man’s natural tendency to lead, or to obey, takes a more prominent role in how that person copes with their relationships. With this set of men, it quickly leads to power struggle, as the Captain’s superiority is questioned by his more ruthless and ambitious “alpha male” subordinate.

NikolovI wasn’t aware, until I read the programme notes, that cannibalism was not uncommon in the Soviet Union during the war, when forced starvation was employed as an active policy by Stalin and Hitler. For the guys abandoned in the cellar, it becomes a mix of “survival of the fittest” and “noblesse oblige”, as they come to the grisly conclusion that it’s the only way to prolong (some of) their lives in the hope of being somehow rescued. As time inexorably passes by – a projection screen keeps us updated as the days turn into weeks – authority, friendship and loyalty are all tried and stretched to beyond breaking point, and, through natural means and foul, the numbers dwindle.

It’s a stunning, memorable play on so many levels. Not only does it take such serious and challenging subject matter and tackle it head on, it also includes the black humour that you would guess would be an inevitable and vital part of surviving such an experience. There’s quite a lot of scene-setting at the beginning which involves them rattling through the long names of various Russian military officers, which actually feels even more disorienting than the sight of seven naked men. You worry slightly that you’re not going to keep up with what’s happening. But actually that sense of confusion is in perfect keeping with the situation in which the men find themselves. Once the initial confusion has passed, the plot concentrates on the relationships between the soldiers, examining the friendships, the enmities, the levels of independence and reliance, the kindness, the cruelty, the selflessness and the selfishness. All human life is there. People are not always what they seem to be; others have the potential to do things you would never imagine possible.

ConflictStructurally, the play has several scenes, each depicting yet another day (or longer) in this hell-hole. Strength progressively deteriorates as they slowly weaken through hunger and lack of exercise. You get a sense of classical drama as the whole story takes place in the same location and has only one theme throughout. Once they cross the Rubicon into cannibalism, there is a symbolic libation scene where they immerse themselves in the blood of their departed comrade. They have blood on their hands – and bodies – for ever after. There is no turning back.

The play specifically examines the nature of deprivation and its effects. The men are deprived of everything – clothing, food, freedom, communication, warmth, family/friends/comrades, information, and hope. Without giving away the full plot, there is a huge sense of irony at the end of the play as you wonder whether those who made the supreme sacrifice did it for nothing. Overall, it’s a fairly negative take on survival, but as the story makes its way to its final conclusion there are some incredibly positive and generous exchanges that give you great confidence in the human spirit.

It goes without saying that the cast are fantastically brave, performing this intense work naked throughout, including lots of physical contact, apparently covered with grime and blood, portraying people in the depths of despair. There’s no hiding place on that stage, no discreet corners or angles where they can take cover, no series of entrances and exits to give the actors a temporary relief from their characters. Whilst these soldiers are alive, they’re on stage. Individually they all give superb performances. Rupert Elmes’ Captain Nikolov gives us a great portrayal of a decent man crumbling under pressure. Walking wounded from the start, he optimistically tries to keep the men motivated and positive, but rapidly falls into self-doubt, and struggles to retain his position. Harvey Robinson’s Ehrenberg is the quiet, natural leader, the kind of man you can rely on in a crisis; balanced and practical, inspiring friendship and confidence, and selfless to the end. It’s an amazingly convincing performance – you hang on his every word. As Lieutenant Kozlov, Marlon Solomon conveys perfectly a level of pessimistic cynicism, whilst still hanging on to his memories and holding out for a positive ending. When the truth behind his character is revealed it’s an exquisite shock, and Mr Solomon absolutely nails both the cynic and the wretch in his performance.

TrustWill Bowden’s Drossov is a powerful ogre of a man, a good soldier to have in your company but with a character so untrustworthy and vicious. You know the kind of man who tries to rule by violence – Mr Bowden inhabits that man in a terrifyingly effective way. John Hoye’s intelligent performance brings out the good, traditional Soviet in Private Sukeruk, a man of strength and experience, no nonsense, naturally dominating, but essentially frustrated at his lack of authority. Matt Houston’s Private Poleko, the Georgian who plays the clown as long as he can until he can take the façade no further, is a great study of a strong spirit that fights so hard to keep on top but whose lack of worldly experience lets him down. It’s an amazing performance. He also embodies the pinnacle of kindness and caring as he protects the simple Private Yuri Yegerov, recruited for his physical strength rather than his mental capacity, played with heart-breaking honesty by Thomas Holloway. For three of these actors, unbelievably, it’s their professional debuts – yet they give us performances of such power and insight, you would think they had years of experience.

This is not an easy watch. Performed at midday during the Edinburgh fringe, an hour and a half later you certainly don’t feel like lunch. But that timing ensures you watch the play with your fullest attention, which it absolutely deserves. It may make you feel sick. It may make you cry. It will certainly make you feel differently about the barbarism of war and the nature of survival. If you can handle the content, this is an extraordinary fulfilling and rewarding play. And you’ll be in awe of the unforgettable performances.

Review – Trainspotting, In Your Face Theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe, Hill Street Drama Lodge, Edinburgh, 8th August 2014

Entering the auditorium for Trainspotting is like entering the great unknown. You’re suddenly part of a black box, there are no visual clues as to where you are or who else is in there, just the intense rhythm of a rave. It’s overpowering, disturbing, disconcerting. You might join in with the dancing, as some of the fellow ravers encourage. Or you might retreat to the safety of the wall. Participate, or observe. What kind of person are you?

To add to the disconnect, you realise your fellow partygoers are masked. Plain, white, half-face masks, concealing identities that aren’t important anyway. They dance, they manoeuvre, they gently restrict your freedom to move, like a Greek chorus silently commenting on the unfolding tragedy of the young Scots caught up in the heroin web.

Into this unreal, intricate, portentous darkness steps Renton, addressing us directly to accompany him on his journey through his own darkness, and maybe out of the other side, if he is spared. For all his crude language, Renton’s an affable guy. He takes us into his confidence, he shows us the horrors of his life, warts and all – although judging by the state of his bedclothes and toilet, warts are the least of his worries. He’s got an ordinary guy kind of sidekick Tommy, who gets drawn into the web when he takes speed before a job interview; there’s the unreliable and unpredictable Sickboy, and the hard, violent, cruel Begbie, who’s never more comfortable than when he’s kicking his pregnant girlfriend in the stomach, or maintaining ruthless order in his manor.

In Your Face theatre have condensed Irvine Welsh’s original story and characters into 75 minutes of gripping theatre. Performing it as a promenade production gets us the audience as close to the action as possible. You can look directly into Begbie’s eyes and see the evil. You can stare in disbelief at Renton’s faeces-covered body and feel the degradation. You can tower over the pathetic figure of Alison as she sobs uncontrollably on the floor at the death of her baby. You can observe the drug-obliterated Tommy injecting heroin into his penis and grieve with sorrow at how he’s fallen. You’re there; you bear witness to it all; you’re almost part of the gang. Could you have done something to prevent any of this happening? Are you to blame too?

The young cast are fantastic and give brave, brutally honest performances, not shying away from the horrific situations into which their characters are plunged. They also make the best of the opportunities for laddish humour and there are a lot of uncomfortable, but very funny laughs. Whilst there are great central performances from Gavin Ross as Renton, Greg Esplin as Tommy, and Chris Dennis as Begbie, together the whole cast form a great, fluid ensemble, interacting subtly and deftly to create a memorable, but ghastly, universe.

It’s an incredibly deep, claustrophobic and sincere production. It’s also very hot in there, which adds to the intensity and discomfort. But if you want to share in the lives of these people, empathise with their wretchedness, yet celebrate their eventual survival (if they make it) this terrific production is for you.

Our first Edinburgh experience

I’d spent weeks poring over the Fringe catalogue (it’s massive, if you haven’t seen it) and the Fringe website, trying to pick out the best performances for Mrs Chrisparkle and me to attend – and, on the whole, I think I did pretty well. 20 shows in 3 days was ambitious, but we succeeded in seeing 19 of them. The elusive 20th was just a bit too late on our first night, considering we’d been up since 5:30am, to get three trains to hit Waverley station by 2pm. I’m satisfied with that hit rate.

We stayed at the Carlton on North Bridge, a hotel that has very fond memories for us, as it was the first place we’d stayed at in Edinburgh when we were but green and callow youths in the mid 1980s. It’s a good choice for the Fringe as it’s really central – no more than about 15 minutes walk from 80% or more of the venues. But boy, do they charge like wounded bulls during Festival time. Our three nights cost over £900 for b&b. Stupid price really, but this morning we walked past the central Ibis hotel and even they had room only rates starting at £219 per night. Edinburgh at Festival time is expensive/elitist/rip-off-city (you choose).

By contrast, the shows themselves are really cheap. Many are free (and then you make a donation on the way out, depending in your level of generosity/ how much you enjoyed it/ how guilty the performer made you feel. Those that aren’t free are rarely more than £12 or so, and, if you pay £25 to become a Friend of the Fringe, many of the shows are available at 2 for the price of one. Our 20 shows cost us roughly £290, including Friends membership, which works out at an average of £7.25 each per show. That’s pretty amazing value.

I’d planned our three days meticulously (as is my wont) so the dozens of flyers we accumulated didn’t influence our choices of what to see at all. However, next time (and there definitely will be a next time) we’ll go for longer (a week?) and keep one day completely unbooked, to be filled with the shows that the flyers (and their enthusiastic flyer-givers) convinced us were worth seeing. I’ve got wads of flyers for shows that all look great, and it’s a source of some frustration that we’re headed back doon sooth on the train (from where I am writing, gentle reader) with those shows unseen (by us). I just hope those lucky patrons who will see them enjoy them.

We’ve been to Edinburgh many times before but were completely unprepared for the Festival Vibe. It’s so different at this time of year. Crowds are thronging, of course, but there’s a youthful exuberance everywhere, as all these hopeful young people, freshly arrived in town, are finally getting the chance to show us what they’ve spent months planning. They want to spread pleasure; they want to communicate their message; I’m sure a few at least will hope for great reviews to further their career prospects. The whole place is riddled with positive energy – and it’s completely wonderful.

Social media gets friendlier too. In the time between booking the shows and taking the post-shows train home, I’ve followed (on twitter, not stalked them back to their digs) many of the performers and companies we’ve seen, and many have started following me. We’ve exchanged loads of good natured banter that could (just *could*) develop into longer lasting online friendships. I have too many really good friendships that started online to underestimate the Power of the Tweet. It’s all a source of Good.

But, when all is said and done, it’s all about the shows, darling. And I have to say, with a couple of minor exceptions, the quality has been of a standard much greater than I would have expected. I’ve done some short, running blogs about the shows we’ve seen and for the most part I’d really have liked to have taken more time to write about each individual show in greater detail – but alas there just hasn’t been the time. But if I think back to the brilliant acting we’ve seen (The Curing Room, Trainspotting, Away From Home, Frank Sent Me), the elegantly crafted writing we’ve enjoyed (First Class, Lace Up), the style and panache of the performers we’ve witnessed (Travesti, Salon Mika, Russell Grant), and the sheer fun of the comedy we’ve shared (Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho, Spank, Quint Fontana), then it’s clear that the variety and quality of what we’ve seen has been outstanding. Yes, a couple were under par, and one was downright disgraceful (Best of Burlesque should be prosecuted under the Trades Description Act) – but, really, it’s been a joy.

If there was one thing that hit me most, artistically speaking, it was how the many plays that take no more than an hour or so really validate and keep relevant the concept of the one-act play. You don’t often get to see them on the commercial stage – maybe as part of a double bill, but on their own they’re too short to make an evening out last. At the Edinburgh Fringe they’re the perfect length to fit one of your artistic slots, and they’re very rewarding. First Class, Lace Up and Frank Sent Me all came in at under an hour but were all riveting and engrossing stories. When you write a play that length, there’s no time for irrelevances or padding. Nothing unnecessary is included, nothing is wasted. You have to concentrate, you have to work with the cast to savour the real meat of each text. But what a rewarding activity!

The other thing that surprised us about ourselves was our ability to sit in the front row and get picked on. We didn’t do it hoping to be picked on, far from it – but as a repercussion of sitting in the front row so that you got a good view, it became a matter of unimportance. Dancing with Russell Grant and Mika (from Salon Mika), exchanging badinage with the Spank hosts, reciting poetry with Paul Savage, being called a “silver fox” by Paul Ricketts (is that really what I am?) all became part of the fun and not something to be feared. We learned a lot about ourselves as a result.

I made one or two errors in scheduling, not quite allowing sufficient time to get from one venue to the next, because I didn’t factor in performances over-running, or the extreme slowness of progressing through certain streets crammed with idle dawdlers on a Saturday night. I hadn’t realised how the main centres (Assembly, Pleasance, Udderbelly, etc) had within them a number of individual venues that meant you could basically spend an entire day in the same venue seeing ten or more performances. But I’m wiser now, and I know how to tackle the 2015 with even more ruthless precision – and I might even build in a little time to eat and have an afternoon nap too.

Thanks Edinburgh, it’s been real. And thanks to all those casts, technicians, writers and musicians who made our three days into an Edinburgh Disneyland experience. Even lining up to get into a venue reminds you of queuing to get on a ride. Sheer self-indulgent pleasure. I loved it! I’m not normally one for regrets, but I wish we’d discovered the Edinburgh Fringe earlier!

The Edinburgh Fringe 3-Nighter – Frank Sent Me

Frank Sent MeNineteen shows done, one to go – and the last one is Frank Sent Me, from Em-Lou Productions. According to the description: “Underworld enforcer Howe’s not afraid to die, but it would’ve been nice if Frank had sent someone vaguely competent to do the job. Partner in life and crime Wallace isn’t doing much to ease his mind on that score, ‘they made a terrible mess of the last one. First bullet only took his ear off’. A bleakly comic Ortonesque farce by Julian Poidevin, directed by Peter Darney. Winner of Writer’s Avenue’s Best Play Award.” Anything described as Ortonesque is fine by me. I wonder how it will compare to The Babysitters, which we saw on Saturday night? It’s on at the precise time of 12:25 at the Underbelly, Bristo Square, and when it finishes around 1.30pm, I’ll try to give my final set of instant reactions – and then we’ll be on the train back down south. Thanks for following our Edinburgh journey – and if you’re at the fringe this year, have a fantastic time!

In answer to my earlier question, it’s very different from Babysitters. It’s a surprisingly sensitive tale of a man facing death, the man who’s got to kill him, and the man who has to live with the aftermath. A very black comedy, tight and tautly written, and with three excellent performances. Definitely a great choice for a lunchtime play. And a great end to our Edinburgh experience for this year.

PS I’ve written a fuller review of Frank Sent Me here if you’re interested!

The Edinburgh Fringe 3-Nighter – Spank!

SpankAnd if we make it through the day, our final show of the evening is the comedy/cabaret who knows what combination that is Spank! It’s three hours of the unexpected that will take us well into the middle of the night. Here’s the description: “Spank! returns for an incredible 11th year with sexy hosts, awesome comedians and the inevitable gratuitous nudity. With the most exciting stand-up, magic, sketch, musical comedy and cabaret talent on the Fringe, don’t miss the ‘Best Wild Night Out’ (Scotland on Sunday) at the Festival! Spank! You love it! ‘This is what the festival should be about’ (List). ‘Legendary party night… get down there right away!’ (Time Out).” I think the line-up changes nightly, so I’m not sure who’s going to be performing at this stage. It starts at midnight at the Underbelly, Cowgate, and if I make it to 3am, I’m going to be in no fit state to make any instant reactions here! Best wait till tomorrow morning I think. I will however offer you my final preview of the last show we will be seeing on Monday lunchtime. Thanks for reading today!

To my surprise, I’m still capable of dashing out a few comments at this late hour. Spank! was terrific. As it’s a different line up every night, I wish we’d gone on Friday and Saturday too. It’s hosted by James Loveridge and another very funny lady whose name I didn’t catch. Basically you get a sequence of brilliant stand ups doing late night routines, and they were all great. Nobody came forward to do the naked promo slot, so host James fell on his sword (so to speak) and flung his naked self on the floor, all five limbs flailing around in comic abandon. Other guests included Ola (who we like from seeing him at Northampton), Australian comedy genius Mickey D, funny group Four Screws Loose, and lots of others. Mrs C and I ended up playing a greater part in the proceedings than we had intended – but it was such good fun that we loved it. Damn, I’m going to miss this next week! Why would you go anywhere else late night in Edinburgh?

Update – the very funny lady who co-hosted with James was Amy Howerska.

The Edinburgh Fringe 3-Nighter – Who Shot Hitler?

Who Shot HitlerOur penultimate show of the day is the Banana Collective in Who Shot Hitler? It’s categorised under Comedy Sketch/Absurdist, and that’s more or less what I’m expecting – something you might see late night at the weekend on Channel 4. This is how it’s described: “Join exciting sketch group, The Banana Collective, as they journey through time – via 1980s TV show Law of the Land, easily the best anachronistic neo-noir detective procedural of its day – to answer the question that has never been asked … and some sketches.” I’m expecting thorough silliness, and hoping that it will be really funny. It starts at 22:20 at Just the Tonic at the Mash House, and I hope to be back with some reaction shortly after it finishes, around 11.30pm. Hopefully the preview of our final show of the day will be online then too.

Not many in to see Who Killed Hitler, which is a big shame, as it would have been much funnier with a decent audience. As it is, it’s a sketch show with some hits and some misses, but the hits are very funny and the misses perfectly forgivable. The second half was ruined (too strong a word? No not really) by two p*ssed up girls who thought they were much funnier than the performers and weren’t afraid to show it. The way the guys carried on despite them was worthy of a medal. Very likeable performers, I’d like to see them do something else – definitely worth the benefit of the doubt.

The Edinburgh Fringe 3-Nighter – Salon Mika

Salon MikaMoving back into the world of burlesque and cabaret – I think – next we have, all the way from New Zealand, Salon Mika. This is the description: “Award winning cabaret king returns for ninth Festival Fringe. Burlesque-Haka, tribal erotica mingle amidst electronic-beats. Salon, that rare place where all forms of life, love, lust, and loss are embraced, with stories spoken from the dark side. Sexual passions collide with human failings in fleeting moments that are ‘hard yet soft, gentle yet rough’. Mika, your ringmaster guides you through musical vignettes, eye-catching noir gems of dubious lustre and deceptive motifs. Come see something beautifully raw. Dress to express!” Really not sure what to make of all that, but I’m expecting something decadent, like an Aubrey Beardsley print, and it definitely sounds like there’s a bit of circus in there too. It’s due to start at 21:00 at Dance Base, so I hope to come back with some instant reactions shortly after 10pm, but there’s only a twenty minute gap between its finishing and our next show, so I might be a bit late. You can see the preview for our next show around the same time.

Well, what was lacking in the Best of Burlesque Show was more than made up for in this stylish, witty, adult cabaret show, starring the amazing Mika, who just oozes sensuality without losing his common touch. A really classy evening where Maori meets Milf, if I can put it that way. Mika’s supported by a brilliant Haka troupe, who scare the sh*t out of you as a heavy juxtaposition to Mika’s torch songs. Plus the amazing Chairman Siche on keyboards. Missing a big audience on the show we saw, it’s definitely worth your attention!