REVIEW! Knot by Nikki & JD @ The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Directed by Jean-Daniel Broussé, Nikki Rummer, and Rosamond Martin
Produced by Jacksons Lane 

Presented at the Assembly Roxy (Upstairs)
31st July – 25th August

Knot is a show about relationships. It is about relationships of all kind, romantic, platonic, professional, about the blurred lines between them and the lies we tell ourselves and each other in the pursuit and preservation of them, or in the creation of an interesting and credible piece of Fringe dance theatre.

The show is an excellent example of dance, acrobatics and circus skills by its two compelling performers, American Nikki Rummer and Frenchman JD Broussé. We are introduced to our two characters, playing heightened versions of themselves, as we find out how they met and began their relationship. But everything is not as it seems between our partners, as is explored over the subsequent hour of intense dance segments interspersed with minimalistic but effective monologues and duologues.

Nikki and JD - courtesy of David White  (2).jpg

Photo by David White

Particularly charming and enjoyable are the stylised, choreographed “fight” scenes between Nikki and JD, as they revert to child-like physicality, with all the pettiness and vindictiveness that youth can bring.

There is very little to this production from a technical standpoint. The stage is an entirely unadorned black box, there is nothing in the way of set or props (excepting the microphones the performers both use intermittently), they wear the simplest, most practical clothing (tight, acrobats’ garb in neutral colours), and the music is effective but unobtrusive, leaving nothing to distract the audience from the phenomenal acrobatic abilities of the performers. Were JD and Nikki less exceptional performers, the simplicity of the show that is built around them would be a detriment, but as it stands it places the focus exclusively where it should be.

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Photo by Laurent Cahu

This is unapologetically a piece of physical theatre, centring the bodies of its performers and the extraordinary things they can do with them. The narrative framing and snippets of acting accentuate and amplify the physical performances, and the emotion and nuance Nikki and JD are able to infuse into their dance and acrobatics all feeds back into the spoken segment. On their own, neither the physical performance nor the dialogue would make for a particularly engrossing show, but in combination they create an experience that is greater than the sum of its parts. Knot is not the most mind-blowing circus show you will see this Fringe, and it is not trying to be; but it is physically impressive, entertaining, and quietly subversive in its honesty.

This show may not, however, be the best introduction to physical theatre for the uninitiated. Its stark and minimalistic style does not give a viewer uncertain of their level of interest in the form a lot to hang onto. But for audiences with an established interest in acrobatics, dance, circus or physical theatre, Knot is a clean, crisp delight, an excellent palate cleanser between the often ostentatious and over-the-top norm of the Edinburgh Fringe.

Tickets

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Previous review: Four Woke Baes by Jonathan Caren @ The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

REVIEW! Four Woke Baes by Jonathan Caren @ The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Directed by Teddy Bergman
Produced by Hidden People and Something for the Weekend
Featuring Lyndsy Fonseca, Michael Braun, Matt Stadelmann, Quincey Dunn-Baker, and Noah Bean
Underbelly Cowgate (Belly Button)
1st – 25th August

With its faux-trendy, twitter friendly title it’s clear that Jonathan Caren’s Four Woke Baes wants to present itself as a funny, incisive examination of modern masculinity, its foibles, contradictions and conflicts. What it is instead is a fairly mundane comedy that embraces tropes and stereotypes of the “battle of the sexes” comedies that more belong in a past two decades gone than they do in 2019.

Dez (Noah Bean) is getting married, an occasion being marked by a bachelor party camping trip in the American wilderness with his three best friends, the bro-ish womaniser Boardman (Quincy Dunn-Baker), the neurotic vegan Sean (Matt Stadelmann), and the nine-year-marriage veteran Andre (Michael Braun). The drama comes when Emma (Lyndsy Fonseca), a provocative and beautiful nu-wave author, turns up, informs them that they are in her campsite, and begrudgingly agrees to share it.

Four Woke Baes (Courtesy of Karla Gowlett) (7) Noah Bean, Michael Braun, Quincey Dunn Baker and Matt Stadelmann.jpg

Photo by Karla Gowlett

Over the course of seventy five minutes, the failings of the four “woke baes” are revealed, and the apparent hollowness of their supposed progressive views laid bare. The problem is that the four baes are never shown to be particularly woke in the first place, giving them no high ground from which to fall, and all of their missteps are straw-mannishly contrived.

Credit must be given to Teddy Bergman’s direction of his cast, who make excellent work of the text. The various chemistries, romantic and bromantic, are believable, and the scenes themselves crackle along at a heady pace. Any ten minute snippet of the production could have easily been a pedestrian excerpt from a far more interesting show, but put all together the text is unable to support the skills of its actors.

Four Woke Baes (Courtesy of Karla Gowlett) (12) Quincey Dunn Baker, Noah Bean, Michael Braun and Matt Stadelmann.jpg

Photo by Karla Gowlett

With almost clockwork regularity every character has a twist, revelation or moment of character assassination that supposedly undercuts them or relationships in some way, I suppose to show the futility of attempting integrity in the modern world. The problem is that these beats never feel earned, so the next fifteen minutes of the play are spent justifying them post hoc, just in time for the next revelation to emerge and begin the cycle again. The show creates a cast of cliches and stereotypes, sets them up to fail, and then attempts to pass off passé cynicism as wisdom when they inevitably do.

But for the title and the occasional reference to Instagram or some other artifice of modern life, this play seems like an unwieldy transplant from the early 2000s, replete with manic pixie dream girl. Furthermore, for a show supposedly about “wokeness” it does an excellent job of objectifying its only female character, both in its centring of her as a sex object, and as a narrative one who exists only to facilitate the emotional journeys of the more fully realised male characters.

Four Woke Baes (Courtesy of Karla Gowlett) (11) Noah Bean and Lyndsy Fonseca.jpg

Photo by Karla Gowlett

In short this is a play about “wokeness” that seems to be written by someone who has heard of the concept but doesn’t actually understand what it is. One can claim satire, or irony, or provocativeness all one wants, but with such hollow lip service paid to its central conceit, such assertions inevitably ring false. The show is overtly heterosexual, white (the one non-white member of the cast was inhabiting the most cliched, American suburban, white picket fence character), and middle class; the very mention of feminism is almost a punch-line and speedily glossed over, where I was expecting earnest declarations of allyship from the baes, perhaps a misapplied “#metoo”.

I was excited by the idea of the show I thought I was seeing when I went into Four Woke Baes, but the truth of the performance did not live up to the promise of its title or its marketing copy. If you are looking for some idle entertainment, and the chance to recognise faces among the cast from American television, then Four Woke Baes is a decent enough way to pass an hour or so at the Fringe. Indeed, sitting in the theatre I was mostly enjoying myself, but with some distance from the show and the chance to reflect on its text and themes, even the excellent individual performances by the cast cannot hide its manifold flaws.

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Previous review: Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein @ Edinburgh Fringe Festival

REVIEW! H.M.S. Pinafore @ The King’s Head Theatre

Music and lyrics by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
Directed by John Savournin
Music directed by David Eaton
Produced by Michelle Barnette for Charles Court Opera
10 April – 11 May 2019

One must approach a Gilbert and Sullivan production with a keen understanding of exactly what one is in for. In many ways, their operettas bridge the gap between a comic opera and what we think of as “modern” musical theatre. Often the principle reserve of the amateur theatrical society, the student musical ensemble, or unambitious independent theatre group, it is very easy to do a G&S production very poorly. Fortunately, Charles Court Opera’s production of H.M.S. Pinafore at the King’s Head Theatre is not an example of this.

(c) Robert Workman. From left to right_ Alys Roberts, Philip Lee.jpg

Image credit: Robert Workman

Subtitled ‘the lass who loved a sailor’, H.M.S. Pinafore tells the story of the star-crossed lovers Ralph Rackstraw (Philip Lee), able seaman, and Josephine Corcoran (Alys Roberts), captain’s daughter. As with all Gilbert and Sullivan productions, the core themes revolve around class, duty, love and the comedy to be found in the intersection and conflict between the three. The narrative is familiar, unthreatening and concludes ludicrously. There is a sameness to many of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas that leads me to forget which beginnings go with which endings, and which songs are present in which, and I have seen my fair share over the years. But every time I heard a familiar refrain strike up at the start of a song I was reminded of how enjoyable these productions can be when done as well as they are here, and I spent a vast majority of this show beaming widely at the ridiculous antics of the crew of the Pinafore and all they came into contact with.

Gaily rendered in bright, 1960s tones, replete with an interpretation of the Pinafore as nothing less than a yellow submarine, the set and costumes created by designer Rachel Szmukler were charming and effective. Clever use was made of the small space, and the low ceilings of the King’s Head make for a believably claustrophobic submarine, setting the stage for some truly excellent performances.

With a tight cast of eight and gender parity, it is hard to fault any of the performances given by the cast on the night. Particular mention must go to Joseph Shovelton’s Sir Joseph Porter, the perfect embodiment of the bombastic, patriarchal, British twit so familiar across Gilbert and Sullivan’s opuses, commanding attention in every scene in which he was present, and consistently eliciting laughs from the entire audience. Matthew Palmer’s Captain Corcoran (also played on alternating weeks by Matthew Siveter) was endearing and feckless as he was carried along by the nonsensical story and Jennie Jacobs doubling as Little Buttercup and Sir Joseph’s Sister was the master of the sideways glance to the audience and always a highlight. As excellent as all the performances were, the bravest and most effective choice was undoubtedly the casting of Sir Joseph’s Aunt, who was an absolute scene-stealer whenever she was present.

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Image credit: Robert Workman

Accompanied only by musical director David Eaton on the keys, the music was tight and the harmonies flawless, as the cast fully embraced the operatic style that the show was written in, with no invasion of a more typical contemporary or “musical theatre” tone to the vocals.

Of course there are certain cringe-worthy moments that are borne of the dated mores of Gilbert and Sullivan’s era (though, admittedly, far fewer than are present in their other shows), particularly in reference to Little Buttercup’s “gypsy blood” and the apparent oracular abilities it gives her. The question must be asked whether anything would be lost from the original script for these references to be changed or omitted, and I don’t pretend to have the answer, though we are prepared to suffer much worse in other forms of historical popular culture.

For fans of Gilbert and Sullivan, the Charles Court Opera’s production of H.M.S. Pinafore is unmissable, and for anyone who has never seen a G&S show, it is hard to imagine a more accessible introduction to the form. The production runs at the King’s Head Theatre until the 11th of May, and tickets are selling fast, so grab them before it ships out for good.

Tickets

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Previous review: Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story @ The Hope Theatre