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

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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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