Shift, Barely Methodical Troupe @ Underbelly Circus Hub

Directed and devised by Melissa Ellberger, Ella Robson Guilfoyle and the Cast
Performed by Louis Gift, Esmeralda Nikolajeff, Elihu Vazquez, and Charlie Wheeller​
Produced by ​​Di Robson​
4 – 25 August at Underbelly Circus Hub, Edinburgh

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Shift – courtesy of Gregory Batardon

Shift by Barely Methodical Troupe is categorised on the Edinburgh Fringe website as “dance/physical theatre/circus”, which I initially thought must have meant that all shows of those genres were being lumped together – however, as it turns out, Shift really did deserve equal claim to all those descriptors!

The four performers bounded around the stage with an energy of absolute exuberance, interacting like playful siblings, completely comfortable with their own bodies and each others’. There was only a minimal amount of dialogue, mainly in the form of light banter with the audience, in an informal style which added to the intimate atmosphere. Moments when the playful, comedic mood was dropped included a beautiful routine accompanied by haunting singing from Esmeralda Nikolajeff in her native Swedish (I assume), and a dream-like sequence with the gigantic (and distractingly handsome) Louis Gift delivering a hypnotising spoken-word parable whilst his castmates clambered over his body. Lighting and reverberant soudscapes accentuated performances without distracting from them, and the few tools involved – mainly rubber resistance bands and a Cyr Wheel – were similarly woven into the show in a way that felt like they were just accessories to the central feature: the performers’ astounding athletic, acrobatic skills.

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Shift – courtesy of Gregory Batardon

Each cast member showed off their own particular skill set to great effect: Elihu Vazquez performed break dancing as if he had electric currents running through his veins, and Charlie Wheeller effortlessly handled the Cyr Wheel like it was a perfectly-trained circus animal. However, the most compelling acts were certainly those featuring the partnership of Nikolajeff and Gift; their big-brother-little-sister chemistry and gentle physical comedy were absolutely charming, as they performed breathtaking feats and subverted expectations of their respective roles (Nikolajeff may be petite, but it turns out she’s probably stronger than most burly men twice her size!).

My only minor criticism would be that the various components of the piece didn’t always tie in with each other intuitively, or segue smoothly from one to the next. Unfortunately, it was these ragged tonal shifts which were the weak point of Shift, and the only times when it lost momentum. However, overall this was a beautiful, magical performance which I am positive held every audience member spellbound for its duration, from the little girls in pigtails in the front row to the elderly couple sitting beside me. I hope I can catch the next performance from Barely Methodical Troupe, as whatever it might be, I am confident I will love it too.

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Feed by Theatre Témoin @ Pleasance Dome

Devising Cast: Jonathan Peck, Louise Lee, Nina Cassells, Yasmine Yagchi
Director: Ailin Conant
Creative Producer: Fiona Mason
Contributing Playwrights: Eve Leigh, Erin Judge
Produced by Theatre Témoin in co-production with The Lowry and Everyman Cheltenham
August 1-27 at Pleasance King Dome, Edinburgh

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Photo by Nathan Chandler

Feed is a devised show about a bunch of things which are at risk of becoming meaningless buzzwords: social media, fake news, the Internet, the post-truth era, integrity in journalism, etc. But where Feed has its point of difference from other devised shows on these topics is how it explores them through the microcosm of four characters: Lucy, a “feminist lesbian progressive” journalist; Simon, her creepy, manipulative, possibly sociopathic, SEO (search engine optimisation) specialist brother; Clem, Lucy’s Palestinian photographer girlfriend; and Mia, a school-aged beauty vlogger. The story unfolds on the morning of Lucy and Clem’s anniversary. Over breakfast, the two enjoy some cute banter about romance and foie gras, before the moment is punctured – not, judging by Clem’s expression, for the first time in their relationship – by Lucy’s ringtone. A story she wrote about a murdered young boy in Gaza is going viral, but there’s only problem: its sudden fame is built on a lie.

As the story progresses, it and its characters spiral further and further into madness, losing their grip on reality and humanity as they disappear into the clutches of the Internet. Jonathan Peck is wonderfully demonic as Simon, who becomes less and less a real character and more an impish embodiment of all the worst temptations offered by online culture; this is visually accentuated by his gradual removal of costume pieces to reveal a full-body Lycra morph suit in green-screen green. The modern offspring of Puck and Iago, he whispers in Mia and Lucy’s ears, urging them to do whatever it takes to chase online fame and power, past all morality or reason. The only one to resist his influence is Clem, and eventually, she seems to be the only real human left in the story, and we are trapped with her in a splintered nightmare of garbled dialogue and conceptual images. This, I gather, was intended to reflect an online feed which has been twisted and fractured by algorithms until only the most shocking and bizarre content remains… and boy, was it effective.

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Photo by Nathan Chandler

Leaving the theatre was like waking from a fever dream of colliding hashtags and rampant digital capitalism. As I emerged, dazed and blinking in the watery Scottish sunlight, with a suddenly-grotesque nursery rhyme echoing through my brain, I tweeted “this one’s going to need some digesting before writing the review!” Three days later, I think I can finally deliver a verdict: Feed is a sharp, incisive, and very disturbing portrayal of the state of online communication in 2018, for all that its themes are nothing new, and despite a slight tendency to get sidetracked by its own cleverness. Whereas anti-digital artistic content is usually produced by baby boomers and born of mistrusting fear, Feed was created by and with young people, “Digital Natives” adept at navigating the online world and with a good understanding of its workings, and this is what makes it so effective. We all know that today’s society operates largely on an “attention economy” born of digital over-exposure and emotional desensitisation, but Feed brings it home in a way that is visceral and affecting. Just don’t go if you’re squeamish about force-feeding or finger removal.

Feed will play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until the end of this week, and tour regionally in Spring 2019.

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Trump’d by Cambridge Footlights @ C Venues

Written and directed by Joshua Peters, Adam Woolf and Aron Carr

At C Venues, Edinburgh Fringe,  Aug 23-27

This pastiche parody is one of three musicals about Trump playing at the Edinburgh Fringe – perhaps because the absurd American political reality demands the outrageous silliness of an over-the-top panto.

This Cambridge Footlights production, with a Wizard of Oz framing device, dueting Isis members, and fourth wall breaking Mexicans, really leans into this. There’s no detailed political analysis to be found – but plenty of the broad jokes are going to land with an audience who love to hate America. The writers have slipped a few pertinent points into the script: that’s it’s not too late to dump Trump, and there’s always hope.

The backing music for the songs has been borrowed from all your favourite musicals, provided on stage by Ted Mackey and Anthony Gray on keyboards. They’re well chosen – catchy and familiar, they bring a lot of energy to the small cast, making it seem like a bigger budget show.

All the performers are having a great deal of fun – though some are stronger singers than others, all put a lot of heart and personality into their roles and were hilariously engaging. Annabel Bolton’s rapping Hilary is delightful, as was Amaya Holman’s ingenue and Stanley Thomas’ grizzled ‘escort’. The members of the Mexican Resistance, played by Carine Valarche, Capucine May and Henry Eaton-Mercer, got to show off good comedic chops and great dance moves. Dan Allum-Gruselle did a lot with a stiff Austrian accent and several pairs of sunglasses. Jack Bolton, who plays Trump, brings to the obvious long tie, orange face and blond wig a disconcertingly perfect impersonation of the shitty President’s shitty voice.

There’s a lot of laugh out loud moments. There’s also a few disconcertingly dark spots in the play – a reminder that the writers and cast know that the reality is much more serious than they’re presenting to you now, which they’ve decided not to address – which is reasonable. A musical isn’t the place to sensitively portray internment camps or rampant xenophobia.

If you’re looking for an hour where you get to laugh at the most laughable parts of America, this is the show for you.

Tickets

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Harpy by Philip Meeks @ Underbelly Cowgate

Performed by Su Pollard
Written by Philip Meeks
Directed by Hannah Chissick
Produced by Suzanna Rosenthal of Something for the Weekend
At Underbelly Cowgate, White Belly Theatre, 1-26 August 2018

Harpy

Su Pollard is Birdie, the infamous hag of her little village. She sits in her house on the hill, perched like a harpy atop her hoard, and waits for the return of the one thing she ever let slip away – the most important thing in her pitiful, lonely life. Throughout the course of this hour-long one-woman show, we watch her converse with her fish, her social worker, her neighbours (through the intervening walls), the local busybody (and almost-friend), and assorted other characters from Birdie’s past and present.

The play was written for Hi-de-Hi! star Pollard, and she brings warmth and complexity to her eccentric character, exhibiting in turns a shrewd Marple-like observant of human nature, and a fragile, vulnerable lost soul. Deftly handling both comedy and aching pathos, she helps her audience forge a deep and personal understanding of this misunderstood old lady. However, the sudden changes to the play’s various other characters are often confusing and flow-breaking, as Pollard does not always draw enough of a distinction between characters to make it clear who is talking, especially when she is playing both parts of a two-person dialogue. At such times, the play could benefit from another actor – Pollard may be a national treasure and an excellent Birdie, but as an actor she does not quite have the versatility to carry all Harpy’s characters on her own.

The play’s first act suffers somewhat from lack of direction; meandering anecdotes, vague foreshadowy references, and the aforementioned disorienting character changes mean that the story feels cluttered, like the house where it takes place. I found myself becoming restless and checking my watch, worried that I too would be sucked into Birdie’s house and lost amongst its hodgepodge of debris, like the Jehovah’s Witness in one of Birdie’s stories. However, with the introduction of a young woman named Mattie Cleeves (spelling?), the story finally begins to gain momentum, and its various frayed threads come together to weave a compelling tapestry – by the final act, I was absolutely hooked and caught up in the story unfolding in front of me. The central element of that story – Birdie’s compulsive hoarding – is much more interesting as soon as it is hinted that there may be a reason for it locked in her tragic life history, and the play could benefit from setting up this conceit much earlier. As it is, it risks jettisoning its audience’s attention (and consciousness) before this intrigue can be properly established.

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Drenched, Third Man Theatre @ Pleasance Courtyard

DrenchedWritten by Eddie Elks and Dan Frost 
Performed by Dan Frost
Directed by Eddie Elks
1-27 August, 3pm at Pleasance Courtyard – Bunker Two

Daniel Drench is West Cornwall’s most prolific and unstable storyteller, an enigmatic figure with a sea-green anorak, ripped skinny jeans and an erratic onstage energy. As he takes us on a journey (‘come with me’) through Cornwall and back in time, he alternately paces the stage, cajoles and reprimands the audience, stares morosely into the middle distance, and spends long minutes sitting motionless in a spotlight as recorded voiceovers play, betraying life and performance only through mad darting eyes and heavy breath. The titular character of his tale – The Mermaid of Zennor – seems added into the story as a belated afterthought; most of the hour’s block is occupied by detailed and repetitive exposition on the character of Matty, who is depicted with an air much like autism until a sudden accident turns his life around.

The bunker space is hot and dark, the one-man show – and its performer’s vocal cadences – rather meandering and slow; I caught myself nodding off once or twice. What roused me most throughout the piece was feelings of discomfort and awkwardness when the storyteller would veer off track to shoot bitterly pointed barbs at the audience, his tech assistant, and Poldark, or to throw a sulky tantrum and declare that he won’t bother doing the ending unless his listeners put a little more effort in. I gathered that these interludes were in character as Daniel Drench – not Dan Frost – but the resulting atmosphere fell short of either a clever artistic statement or real comedy. Perhaps Frost and Elks sought in the character of Drenched to capture a sense of that spirit which inhabits all old folk tales – capricious, untamed, dual-natured, fey – but unfortunately, it all came across as simply self-indulgent and dull.

There were moments when I saw flashes of the show I’d have liked to see: when the soundscapes, lighting, set, and craggy-faced narrator evoked an atmosphere of the Cornish coast on folklore and romanticised history; when Drench as Matty danced a wild, ferocious reel to music of heartbreak; when Drench told, eyes fixed on an unseen horizon and voice soft and light as waves after a storm, of how Matty met his final destiny. But these were sadly few and far between, and I hope that before Elks and Frost open their next production, Daniel Drench will have been quietly dropped as Third Man’s third man.

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Ladykiller, The Thelmas @ Pleasance Courtyard

1st – 27th August 2018

Director:  Madelaine Moore

Writer:  Madeline Gould

Designer:  Baska Wesolowska

Lighting Design:  Jennifer Rose

HER: Hannah McClean

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Ladykiller is a darkly humorous examination of the social expectations of female serial killers, and more broadly, instructive of how to find advantage within a system geared to disempower you, to take it down from the inside.

Upon entering Bunker One we find a woman, dead, face down on the floor with blood spreading beneath her. Hannah McClean enters as the character HER in a French maid’s uniform, her apron and hands wet with blood. She begins a defence of the murder, telling the story of how the now dead hotel guest attacked her and how she had no choice but to protect herself.

Ladykiller challenges the idea of victim-hood in a post me-too world. It explores the intersection of both being a woman and working in minimum wage as abused roles, but the power/access that can come out of that. It further critiques how successful this position of being underestimated can be, offering an unresolved question about the relationship between trauma, cycles of violence and whether harsher consequence should be the way to change behaviour. It spun together familiar ideas and made them feel fresh, its comments novel. The image of HER standing over another woman’s body a potent image at the centre of the work.

Ladykiller is entertaining, funny, engaging, and an effective allegory for challenging gender roles in contemporary society. The writing is relevant and well executed. Hannah McClean has perfect comic timing, adeptly handling the pacing of the show’s meandering associations, expertly inhabiting the stage with her impressive pretence, stick-shifting our expectations like she’s driving at the Formula One.

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Bunker One, Pleasance Courtyard, 60 Pleasance, EH8 9TJ

Tickets

Thor And Loki, by Harry Blake @ Assembly Roxy

Directed by Eleanor Rhode
Created with House of Blakewell
Produced by Vicki Graham Productions with HighTide and Something For The Weekend
1 – 26 August 2018, 7:15pm at the Assembly Roxy Upstairs Theatre

Thor and Loki

Photo by Geraint Lewis

I went into this show knowing absolutely nothing about it other than what the silly/kitschy poster proclaimed – THOR + LOKI, A COMEDY MUSICAL – and it is only now, as I begin the necessary research to write this glowing review, that this ridiculously, gloriously camp creation boasted the same director as Boudica (on last year at the Globe) and the same producer as today’s earlier show The Song of LunchHats off to Eleanor Rhode and SFTW respectively as I loved both these more “serious” productions of theirs, however the figurative cake was well and truly taken by this ridiculously, unapologetically silly comedy musical.

Thor and Loki, growing up amongst gods and giants respectively, have always known that they don’t fit in with the expectations of what they should be. Thor writes poetry and isn’t outdoorsy, and pacifist Loki would rather have a vegan picnic in the park than join the giants’ army. Neither is particularly interested in the businesses of heroism or havoc. However, when both are reluctantly press-ganged by destiny to fight in the great war of Ragnarok, they must choose between being the people they are, or who they are told they must be…

Photo by Geraint Lewis

Honestly there’s not much I can say about this show except that it is a giant-sized amount of fun with a warm heart and a hilarious, talented cast (which, despite singing a number about not having to use a talent just because you have it, manage to shoehorn an amazing number of talents into the show, often on little to no pretext – tap-dancing trolls??). Alice Keedwell is magnetic as Loki, in a role reminiscent of (but more fun than) Elphaba in Wicked, and with a similarly soaring soprano. Bob Harm’s Odin is a commanding presence with a strong old rocker vibe, and while Harry Blake’s wet blanket Thor underwhelmed me at first, his journey throughout the piece changed my mind and by the end I was thoroughly enjoying his whole schtick. However, the stage-stealer of this show was Laurie Jamieson as the giants’ scheming, horse-riding general (and assorted other bit roles) – side-splittingly funny, with just enough of a touch of real human warmth to have me invested in his fate (and I was not disappointed!).

Did Thor + Loki have a huge budget to spend on slick sets and fancy costumes? No! Were the political references and moral themes a little heavy-handed? Yes! Did they play hard and fast with Norse mythology to the point of unrecognisability? Definitely! But was this the hardest I’ve laughed at the Fringe, and the most uplifted I’ve felt by any theatre in a long time? Well, let’s just say:

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Photo by Geraint Lewis

The Song of Lunch, by Christopher Reid @ Pleasance Courtyard

Directed by Jason Morell
Featuring Robert Bathurst and Rebecca Johnson
Animations by Charles Peattie
Produced by Thirty/20 Theatre and Suzanna Rosenthal of Something for the Weekend
1 – 27 August at 2:20pm at The Pleasance Courtyard, Forth theatre

Picture by Karla Gowlett

Robert Bathurst’s unnamed character in The Song of Lunch is a man who wishes he could turn back time. A stuffy older white man, working in the publishing industry and determinedly inhabiting a fantasy London in which he can still brush shoulders with literary greats in the streets of Soho, he has summoned his ex from her comfortable life and family in Paris to meet with him for lunch in an old trattoria. What is he hoping for? Pleasant reminiscences on old times? To rekindle their lost love? As lunch progresses and the Chianti bottles empty, the Publisher’s defenses are slowly stripped away under his companion’s mercilessly incisive gaze, and we see the foibles of his psychology laid bare.

This play is staged in the tucked-away and packed-out Pleasance Forth theatre, and its audience comprises almost entirely of older middle-aged theatregoers who recognise Robert Bathurst from Cold Feet and Downton Abbey. The simple, rhythmic elegance of its lyrical writing and the minimalist staging – supported by gorgeous animations by Charles Peattie – feels a world away from the raucous variety of attention-grabbing artistic gambles which characterise usual Fringe shows. Like the haute cuisine enjoyed by its characters, this play appears light and bite-sized on the surface, but has layers of subtle complexities and flavours which mean that the subsequent analytical discourse forms half the pleasure. I feel that I would need a whole essay to unpack the meaning of this piece, in an operation as delicate as the lady character’s dissection and consumption of her sea bass. If pressured, I would summarise thus: this story is about an individual’s (or a country’s? An empire’s? A social class’s? A gender’s?) inability to accept that, through his own failings, the sun is setting on his glory days and a new era is beginning to dawn without him. Rather than taking responsibility for his shortcomings and adapting to make the best of the changing times, he clings desperately to an unattainable and rosy-filtered image of the past. Like Orpheus, in succumbing to the temptation to look backwards instead of forwards, he throws away the chance of a brighter future.

All the talk of tragedy and pathos aside, this play is also incredibly witty and had the audience chuckling and chortling both with and at the charming yet pathetic Publisher. Rebecca Johnson as the “old flame” is also wonderful, embodying poised self-confidence and providing an empathetic yet no-nonsense balance to the narrator’s self-indulgence (the golden tones of her hair and the warm lights she is often bathed in provide welcome relief from Publisher’s cooler, almost anaemic colour scheme).

The playbill includes a note from the playwright which suggests that, though originally intended to be a ‘piece of pure comedy, a light farce’, during the writing process the play had found its own, darker shape, in a process of which he ‘was only partially aware’. This is evident from the contrast between the light, optimistic, playful mood of the beginning in contrast to the somewhat bleak ending, and the piece’s tangled deeper meanings (teasingly self-parodied when the Flame suggests a convoluted counter-interpretation to the Publisher’s poetry, and is met by a blank response of ‘…you’re going to have to run that past me again’). However, this very vulnerability of the piece is what lends it its charm: beneath all the witticisms and self-deprecation, this play provides a glimpse of someone who is disappointed in their past and scared of their future… I think all of us, at some time in our lives, can relate to that.

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Picture by Karla Gowlett

 

Super Hamlet 64 @ The Cockpit

Produced and presented by Eddy Day

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Trans/non-binary performer Eddy Day has many talents, and all of them are on display in this 90 minute show – song, mime, banter, many musical instruments, creative animation. It’s an exploration of what games mean to us and how we struggle with roles society imposes.

Despite Day’s skill, the show drags – it’s hard for one actor to maintain energy for over an hour, playing multiple characters with increasingly similar accents. Long segments felt unnecessary but for a single, simple joke or reference which frequently failed to support the show’s overarching message.

The music and projections were impressive, but not enough to support the text, which staggered under the the weight of lengthy quotation from a range of high and low culture texts.

The script was strongest when Day was original – there’s a few good monologues in there about living up to expectations and coming to terms with death – but the accompanying full 12 point font A4 page of video games referenced shows that there’s not enough focus in the show.

Full disclosure: I am obsessed with Hamlet. I’ve directed the play, I have most of it memorised, read essays about it for fun.

At one point, Day states, with ukulele accompaniment, that they’ve stuck pretty close to the spirit of the original. And they have, to an extent. Hamlet is also very long and discursive and filled with odd asides which add little to the main text. Day, as I’m sure they’re aware, is no Shakespeare. They’re clearly fond of the play, but has failed to interrogate or transform it.

In this production, Hamlet is simply another text to be quoted, as meaningful as any of the many, many video games which are referenced. It provides flavour, but could have been replaced with any other tragedy.

Secondary disclosure: I love video games. I sunk seven hours into Curse of Monkey Island last week and have strong opinions about Metal Gear.

Again – the video games are just there to provide flavour. There are so many touched on – through word play or complex visual presentations – that none of them are meaningful. A ten minute Portal reference? A motorcycle riding Ophelia? Rosa and Crash and Guile and Stan? It becomes noise, distracting from the core of what Day seems to be trying to get at.

Buried under the flurry of references, there’s a good 45 minute show about expectations and mortality, but it has to be exhumed from a pile of extraneous nonsense so tall it makes Ossa a wart.

Tickets

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Little Death Club @ Circus Hub Edinburgh

Hosted by Bernie Dieter
Presented by Underbelly and Dead Men Label
3rd – 25th August 2018, 8pm

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Bernie Dieter in Little Death Club (background: Jess Love and Myra DuBois). Photo from berniedieter.com

Little Death Club bubbles along with easy good humour and sly winks, buoyed by the delightfully naughty charm, raucous wit, sultry Weimar-punk-jazz vocals, and wildly careening pseudo-Euro accent of its black-clad hostess, Bernie Dieter. Her flirtatious banter with the audience brings a sense of intimacy (so important, darlings! we don’t get intimate enough these days!) to the large-scale Spiegeltent, and her acts – from an aubergine-heavy emoji song to an ode to dick pics to a demand for cunnilingus – exude exuberance and an unapologetic female sexuality which never sacrifices its own pleasure for the male gaze. (I may be a little enamoured of this larger-than-life mistress of havoc.)

The show’s strongest acts – aside from its fabulous compere – are, interestingly, those which are most traditional and least subversive: fire eater Kitty Bang Bang and Oliver Smith-Wellnitz on the double bar trapeze. The former is classically, coquettishly sexy, despite the luxuriously curling merkin which pokes out amongst red mesh lingerie – watching her brandish, twirl, roll, swallow, spit, jiggle, and breathe fire was absolutely enthralling, especially since I was half-convinced her synthetic victory rolls and tumbling wig might go up in flame at any moment! Smith-Wellnitz, on the other hand, glided onto the stage as a tall, slim, almost elfen androgyne, slipping out of a long black gown to perform an achingly beautiful aerial dance, accompanied by a haunting self-penned ballad from Dieter, Cracks in the Mirror.

The Underbelly Circus Hub To Celebrate 250 Years Of Circus

Oliver Smith-Wellnitz in Little Death Club – photo source

The show’s other acts included glam granny drag queen Myra DuBois, fed-up and disillusioned mime Josh Glanc, and Jess Love performing hula comically under sufferance. Each had a unique comedic appeal based on self-aware genre parody and subversion of circus/cabaret expectations, however their acts seemed lacking in energy and cohesion, which meant the show sometimes struggled with pacing and momentum. This may have simply been penultimate-week slump, or simply because this is a collection of artists who are all at the Fringe with their own solo shows; they are marketed as a “family of freaks”, and it is true that they are all dramatically different in appeal and style (although for a club where “difference” is welcomed and celebrated, there is a distinct lack of racial diversity). However, their easy self-confidence in their acts and their disabilities also made it seem as though they weren’t quite challenging themselves or their audience.

Little Death Club may not be breaking new burlesque/kabarett/circus ground, but they certainly command the existing ground with expertise and ebullience. I would recommend this show for you if you are a Fringe-goer who wants some light and sexy fun after a day of hard-hitting shows, and wish to use it as a sample taste so that you can then pursue the solo shows of your favourite acts.

Tickets

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