A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit…* @ Finborough Theatre

Written by Halley Feiffer
Directed by Bethany Pitts
Featuring Cara Chase, Robert Crouch, Cariad Lloyd, and Kristin Milward.
Presented by Arsalan Sattari Productions in association with Neil McPherson
Tuesday, 2 October – Saturday, 27 October 2018

*Okay, so the full title of this piece was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City, but that made this post title far too long!
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Set design by Isabella Van Braeckel. Photo by James O Jenkins

My experience of the pub theatre scene in London has spanned an eclectic mix of plays, from tried-and-true classics to material still in the rough work-in-progress stages, from the clever to the dumb, high calibre to low. A Funny Thing… was easily the highest quality piece of theatre I’ve seen in this range.

From the moment the plasticky pastel green divider curtains are pulled aside to reveal an excellently-executed hospital ward, complete with two patients who remain slumbering in their identical beds throughout the majority of the play. Isabella Van Braeckel is to be commended on her flawless set design, which is not only hyper-convincing but also features wonderfully sardonic touches such as the winkingly vaginal abstract artworks on the walls.

As the play starts to develop, however, the dialogue is quickly revealed to be less convincing and realistic than the set. Characters Karla and Don meet in the gynecologic oncology unit where they are both visiting their (probably) dying mothers; she is a young, foul-mouthed millenial who works as a stand-up comedian, and he is an awkward middle-aged slob with an unstable temperament. Their initial interaction is explosively confrontational, and the following 180-pivot of their their relationship also beggars belief, particularly since a lack of onstage chemistry makes it feel somewhat forced. As the characters rush to bare the crevices of their minds in all their filth and generosity, I couldn’t help feeling a slight British distaste for what seemed like a very American type of candid emotional display, with all the subtlety and hidden meaning of a sledgehammer.

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Kristin Milward as Marcie. Photo by James O Jenkins

That said, as the play progressed and it became clear that it was to be a sustained artistic and thematic choice, this brutal honesty and unflinching examination of its characters’ psyches grew on me. The three individuals of Don, Karla, and her mother Marcie are revealed to be riddled with flaws, yet each has their own vulnerability, inner strength, and moments of shining kindness. Each grows as a person during the course of the play, and learns to form stronger, healthier connections with those around them. And along the way, they are harshly hilarious – particularly Kristin Milward as Marcie, who managed to steal scenes despite being confined to a bed and drip and, largely, unconscious. For every snarky burn or crass joke, there is a witty observation, a crackle of deliciously dark humour, or a burst of shared joy, and it is in these moments that the play is at its strongest.

My enjoyment of this clever comedy was only slightly marred by a sprinkling of unnecessary shock-value jokes; for the most part, the play was “edgy” in a good way, but it did occasionally cross the line into ableism or homophobia which didn’t add anything to the value of the play. Although these cracks detracted slightly from the moral weight of the play, they can at least be partially justified by the fact that none of its characters are, especially at the beginning, particularly good people.

Overall, A Funny Thing is an excellent, funny, poignant new piece of dark comedy and social commentary from American playwright Halley Feiffer. I felt buoyed by every shameless celebration of female sexuality and masculine vulnerability, and touched by the emotional rawness of these complicated relationships. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart… but in the end, for a show that is largely about death, disease, and dissatisfaction with life, there is a remarkable amount of cautious optimism and love woven in.

Tickets.

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Cariad Lloyd and Robert Crouch as Karla and Don. Photo by James O Jenkins

I Will Miss You When You’re Gone, Starbound Theatre @ Hen & Chickens Theatre

Written by Jessica Moss
Directed by Yuqun Fan
Produced by Rebecca Dilg
Performed by Paulina Brahm, Marta da Silva, Sharon Drain, and Tammie Rhee
18 – 29 September 2018

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Rehearsal image by Petra Eujane

I Will Miss You When You’re Gone is a new play written by Canadian playwright Jessica Moss. Starring four women and a roomba, this 75-minute piece follows two living characters, Robin and Celeste, who are being haunted by their erstwhile colleague Evelyn and Celeste’s mother Theresa – but not necessarily in that order. A comedy which is alternately dark and sweet, this play explores such heavy topics as suicide, grief, depression, anxiety, isolation, and workplace bullying.

As is usual in pub theatre, the set was small and simple, which worked well for this intimate and personal story, and increased the effectiveness of artistic touches such as the costuming of living characters in sterile white but dead ones in vibrant colours. The soft Canadian accents and quips about Toronto made for a refreshing change of setting. However, the heavily 60s-styled costumes contrasting with references to BuzzFeed and Game of Thrones threw me somewhat. Similarly distracting were the frequent scene changes – often abrupt, awkward, and graceless, with very little in the way of transition. This could have easily been alleviated by simple use of sound, lighting, and/or movement, and is something that director Yuqun Fan should remedy for future productions.

The highlight of this show is definitely its excellent cast. Marta da Silva as Evelyn was the standout performance, channeling a fierce Gina Linetti vibe and juggling both pathos and comedic snark. Tammie Rhee was also excellent as the bureaucratic boss Robin, and Sharon Drain brought a wonderfully warm presence to the stage as mother Theresa. Although not as strong as her castmates, Paulina Brahm provided a relatable character for a millennial audience in the form of Celeste, an underachieving, under-confident intern struggling to cope with adult life. I was, however, confused by whether this character was supposed to be developmentally delayed or not; her ineptitude, naivete, and lack of social abilities was regularly the butt of jokes, but Celeste herself angrily protests at one point that she’s “not retarded”. This casual throwaway use of a slur seemed at odds with a story about treating others with empathy, and being sensitive to issues of mental illness.

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Rehearsal image by Petra Eujane

Overall, I Will Miss You When You’re Gone felt like a 75-minute riff on an interesting concept which wasn’t really developed enough to carry the length of the show. As a result, too many complex themes were introduced superficially as filler material, while plot holes and questions of world-building were left unanswered. However, this and the weak characterisation of the play’s central character were leavened somewhat by the excellent performances and compelling arcs of its supporting figures, as well as a number of clever gags. With some rewriting, condensing, and slicker directing, this show could be a very effective and enjoyable Fringe-sized piece.

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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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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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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

 

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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Angry Alan by Penelope Skinner @ Underbelly Cowgate

Written and directed by Penelope Skinner
Starring Donald Sage Mackay
Presented by Francesca Moody Productions in association with Underbelly
2nd – 26th August 2018, 3.20pm at Cowgate

Donald Sage Mackay in Angry Alan

Donald Sage Mackay in Angry Alan, photo by The Other Richard

Angry Alan is not actually about Alan; it’s about Roger, a thoroughly average American guy. Roger is established as an unremarkable everyman from his very first line: “You know that feeling, when you think to yourself, I should really go for a run…” from which he then leads us through a familiar process: getting your phone out to check the weather, becoming distracted by an interesting article, and next thing you know you’ve fallen down a rabbit hole of Internet links and you definitely don’t have time for a run now. We’ve all been there! But for Roger, the rabbit hole leads somewhere more sinister than your usual clickbait – he discovers Angry Alan, a prominent figure in the online Men’s Rights Activism (MRA) community. As Roger is “red pilled” and ventures deeper and deeper into this movement, we follow his story of how it changes his relationships, decisions, perceptions of society, and his self-esteem.

This is a one-person show, told in first person present tense, with virtually nothing to distract the audience from its narrator – the only two items brought onstage are a chair and a lanyard. A projector screen forms the backdrop, and various (real) MRA videos are interspersed throughout the narrative, along with various supporting images such as an email screenshot, or a text message conversation. Donald Sage Mackay is superb as Roger, portraying a character who is very believable and sometimes even relatable – a guy who means well, but whose weaknesses, his feelings of insecurity and impotence, allow him to be preyed upon by more sinister forces. While Roger claims that the movement inspires him to be “proud” of his identity and to “change the world” for the better, he also unwittingly admits to the truth: where he had previously blamed himself for his perceived inadequacies and failures, the MRA movement offered him an absolution from guilt, and a different target for all his pent-up rage and resentment instead.

Skinner’s decision to minimise the amount of outright misogyny in Roger’s character – there was nothing about “women’s place” or any gender-fraught slurs – meant that Roger was not the two-dimensional caricature of a socially challenged, greasy-haired weirdo hunched over his laptop and spewing out hate speech, which many feminists would usually associate with the “MRA type”. All Roger really wants is a better self-image, a better relationship with his son than his with his father, and a return to a time when he knew and understood his place in the world. When his girlfriend discovered feminism, he explains, she found it “inspiring”. But the main feelings Roger finds in Men’s Rights Activism seem to be, as declared in the play’s title, anger.

In a world of Elliot Rodgers and “incels”, alt-right terrorists and #metoo, Angry Alan certainly fulfills the proscription of theatre to ‘hold up a mirror to society’. However, my only criticism of the play is that it stops there; there is no urge to action, or even suggestion of how we, as a society, can counter this anger and (self-)destruction. As Roger laid out the logic of the MRA movement, the “alternative facts” of a “gynocentric” social structure in which it is men, not women, who are systematically oppressed, I felt a dull sense of helplessness and hopelessness set in: how do you fight this sort of cultish indoctrination, and blind, rage-filled world-view? At what point could anyone have stepped in and talked Roger away from these beliefs, when he clung to them like a drowning man to a life raft? As the story hurtled inevitably towards crisis and/or tragedy, there was a total lack of hope, of the possibility of redemption. I feel this is doing Roger, men, and humanity a disservice, and meant that Angry Alan fell short of being truly groundbreaking. Diagnosing and warning against a widespread disease in society is important, but trying to treat it is what we really need our innovators to concentrate on.

This last gripe notwithstanding, it is fair to say that Angry Alan is fully deserving of its Fringe First award and fully sold-out status: this is a piece of raw yet elegant theatre which packs a real punch, and when further runs are announced throughout the UK – of which I have no doubt – I would strongly urge all Theatre Box readers to make seeing it a priority.

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Donald Sage Mackay in Angry Alan, photo by The Other Richard