Robyn Perkins Review

Robyn Perkins: 10,000 Decisions

Underbelly, Bristo Square, Edinburgh

August 3rd – 12th, 14th – 26th

 

On the way into Robyn Perkins’ show we are asked to write down a conundrum, or decision, that we are happy to have aired in public and that might well form the basis of the show. Perkins is one of those comics who likes to combine the factual and scientific with the comedic, something that might date back to the emergence of another Robin a decade ago – Robin Ince – and is now a substantial subgenre featuring everyone from Helen Arney and Steve Mould to Matt Parker and Dara Ó Briain – then again it might all be the fault of Dave Gorman and his early experiments with Google.

Perkins is a biologist, and this show examines the decision making process as a series of biological consequences. The decision picked from those offered by the audience for this show is about whether or not someone in the audience (and it definitely wasn’t me) should start selling their body as a means of making a few extra quid.

Perkins makes much fun out of this with her process of deconstructing decision-making into its constituent emotional and biological processes, though what follows feel, somewhat inevitably, that it has all been worked out in advance.

All the evidence, and all the supporting materials are well prepared. The show has some very funny graphics, hand-drawn by the comedian herself, which highlight the bits of our psyche and our brains that are to blame for the decisions. A highly amusing exploration of the role of the amygdala (otherwise, the guilty party in much of our emotion-driven decision making) follows.

Indeed, her riffs on reclaiming the word amygdala for those phrases where commonly we use the word heart (with all my heart, bottom of my heart etc.) are very clever as wordplay. There is much in this show that is very interesting. And perhaps that is the issue with the show. It’s a risk when you have a comedy routine that’s based on facts that actually it ends up more interesting than amusing.

Indeed this is a charge that could be levelled at much of this type of science-comedy, and at much fact-based comedy in general. But it’s a criticism that doesn’t damn the show. Perkins is clever and engaging and there are plenty of laughs. And the material is interesting and informative, more than enough to keep the audience enthralled for over an hour, and that’s bound to count as a plus. And, no doubt, that as a scientist as well as a comedian, Robyn Perkins will be happy to have achieved that.

Performance      ****

Peter McCall

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Gayface Review

Gayface

theSpace on North Bridge, Edinburgh

August 3rd – 25th

Seeing Other People Productions has come a long way. Literally, a very long way. Portland, Oregon to be precise. Safe to say that this, their first Edinburgh Festival Fringe, is a major undertaking, both creatively and economically. They’re in a small venue, the Perth Theatre at the Hilton on North Bridge, so we can only hope they get the sell-out audiences they’ll need to ensure their show doesn’t close with large losses.

I suspect they might struggle. The play, Gayface, follows the fortunes of an actor, Hal, who gets cast in a play by a successful production company, and written by an up and coming gay playwright. It’s a very enjoyable one hour straight through, but in a rather limiting venue.

Hal has one very obvious disadvantage in the acting game, and another that is not so evident. In respect of the former, he is a large sized man, with all the disadvantages this confers. The play within the play calls for on stage nudity.

Also, unbeknownst to his colleagues on the show, he is gay. The play explores how these twin issues force Hal into compromises and lies, denying who he is to get the gig and then facing a complex of difficult interactions with the director, the writer, and his co-star, as he struggles to keep a lid on his secret.

The title of the play, gayface, refers to the practice of casting straight men as gay in the US film and theatre business, an increasingly common trend similar to the practice of casting white actors in non-white parts. There area few examples cited in the script. Think Sean Penn in Milk, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain, or Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. It seems no straight actor seeking critical respect can be without a gay role on the resumé. (Advocate magazine has a comprehensive list of Academy-nominated gayface actors, at the link shown below this article.)

Chet Wilson wrote the play, and plays the lead, and he is excellent as Hal. One gets the sense that this has been a labour of love for him. His commitment to the part is total, and it feels like a very natural fit, as one would expect. His performance is sympathetically directed by Devon Roberts, who handles the comedy adroitly. London Bauman and Ethan Cockrill are solid in the supporting roles, and Amity Hanson gives a first class performance in two roles, that of Hal’s director Carmen, and his flatmate Ellen. So good is she that it doesn’t feel like doubling.

The production however is a little cramped in the very confined space, and I have no doubt it was written with a more traditional venue, and staging, in mind. Much of the action is played end-on, which puts the audience seated at the sides at a bit of a disadvantage. However, the space is intimate enough that this is never problematic. Of greater issue with the given layout is the lighting at either side of the small thrust in the Perth Theatre, which is hard on the eyes.

That said, this is a very funny and very enjoyable show. The script is often hilarious, classic New York deadpanning played in contrast to pure farce, as Hal plays it cool on the surface while underneath the waterline he is kicking like mad, butching up in an effort to keep his job.

There is some very fine acting on show here, and Roberts’ direction serves the material well. The audiences laughed hard from start to finish. This small but charismatic company deserves to have a strong first run at Edinburgh.

 

Script                         ****

Performances            *****

Production                 ***

Peter McCall

 

https://www.advocate.com/film/2018/2/27/52-straight-people-who-nabbed-oscar-noms-lgbt-roles

Vivarium Review

Vivarium

Bedlam, Bristo Place, Edinburgh

August 8th – 15th, 17th – 27th

 

Euan lives with his mother and granddad and doesn’t know his father Paul. Paul has just come out of prison and decides to track his son down using Facebook. When he finds him, things go disastrously wrong. A real tour-de-force of bravura acting by John Travers, this one-man show from Bruised Sky takes us to the very darkest places, by way of some muscular writing about contemporary Northern Irish families, and a driving relentless narrative full of twists and turns.

The show is also very funny, in the tradition of bleakly dark comedy that is a hallmark of much contemporary Irish writing (think Martin McDonagh or Abi Spallen) and for much of the first half, the dialogue has the audience laughing hard. Travers, especially in character as the boy, finds moments of absurd and bitterly funny humour. But the black comedy offers levity only to offset what is a very dark tale of the lingering violence in Irish society.

The play follows the journeys of both father and son with Travers playing both parts, as they meet, form a bond, and then decide to rebel against the strictures that keep them apart. Using lighting that separates the characterisations the director, Don Mc Camphill, gives Travers spaces to create clear separation between each character and Travers uses both spaces excellently. At times, it feels as though we are watching two actors on stage.

The script is lean and exceptionally powerful – from the get-go these two characters impel us forward on a journey that is headlong for tragedy. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much more without spoiling the show, but it is an emotionally overpowering experience. Ultimately, Mc Camphill and Travers find a beautiful transcendence in the last act of the play, and the final twists are played out in a way one could never have expected.

The production is minimal, a bare stage and a single chair seeming at first somewhat stark. In some ways it also feels like a choice driven by the economics of Fringe theatre, and it’s a pity the director couldn’t have found the means to make more of the design. But as the show progresses we come to view the design choices as intended to point the audience toward the story and the acting, which are unquestionably the strengths of the show. The lighting by contrast is subtle and cleverly worked, and the music is beautiful.

This is the best play I’ve seen at the Fringe in 2018. Powerfully written and beautifully acted, it also has something important to say about maleness and the failures of contemporary fatherhood. It pounds forward with an intense energy, fuelled by dark humour and a relentless driving narrative. This is a definite Pick of the Fringe and a must see. Keep an eye on John Travers too – surely a candidate for acting laurels come the end of August.

 

Script                     *****

Performance      *****

Production          ****

 

Peter McCall

KillyMuck Review

KillyMuck

Underbelly, Bristo Sq. Edinburgh

August 8th – 12th, 14th – 27th

 

Kat Woods has carved quite a career path bringing plays to Edinburgh in August, and then unleashing them on the world.

Belfast Boy was a career defining show in 2014, selling out, winning a Fringe Review Outstanding Award, and going on to tour in Ireland, the UK and Finland. Wasted further enhanced her reputation, with an Edinburgh Fringe run in 2015 followed by a transfer to New York, and showing in Lost Theatre in Stockwell, and the White Bear in Kennington.

This year she brings Killymuck, a one-woman show with Aoife Lennon in the role of Niamh, a young girl who grows up in economic deprivation on a housing estate in Northern Ireland. From her birth to the death of her father, Niamh leads us through the trials and discrimination that a young woman from a working-class background faces. The first of these is school, with its routine and numerous humiliations. The nuns in the catholic schools system practice many small cruelties. Niamh, without the resources or support system to thrive, suffers and underachieves.

In her home community, domestic violence is common, alcoholism and prostitution are a part of life. Still the women work to make life not just bearable but enriched. Niamh tells us of the efforts of her mother and a neighbour to beautify the estate with flower growing, only to see the gardens concreted over by the Housing Executive – the system is built to contain the poor, to maintain a dull sameness, and not to allow even these small but meaningful acts of beautification.

Throughout the performance, Aoife Lennon breaks out of character as Niamh, breaks the fourth wall, and directly addresses the audience with facts, statistics and ideas around the issue of economic deprivation. We are encouraged to challenge the status quo, to press our public representatives to act, and to fight not for equality, which will favour those who start with material advantages but for equity, which enables everyone to achieve to an equal level.

The performance by Aoife Lennon as Niamh is excellent. She possesses a wonderful natural charisma, and her performance does not need to strain at all to achieve our emotional engagement. From the start, we want Niamh to achieve and are in complete sympathy with her situation. Lennon’s delivery is crystal clear and powerfully moving.

The breakout moments where we get direct address add a welcome formal innovation and remind us that this is not just a narrative of deprivation but a clarion call for action. Its agit-prop directness is a powerful driver for audience engagement and it is a very welcome addition. The play is significantly enhanced by the power of these moments of audience address.

The production is minimal, a stage box serving as set and simple lighting changes setting mood and allowing for a simple switch from storytelling into direct address. Woods’ direction is unfussy and allows Lennon to take control of the piece and the audience. This is a very worthwhile show and shows the subtle but powerful writing that have won awards and praise for previous Kat Woods plays. It’s one not to be missed.

 

Script                     ****

Performance      *****

Production          ****

 

Peter McCall

Helen Lederer Review

Helen Lederer: I Might As Well Say It

Underbelly Bristo Sq, Edinburgh

August 8th – 12th, 14th – 25th

 

Helen Lederer is a legend. That is beyond question. Having blazed a trail in the early eighties with Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French as the female members of the Comedy Store gang, Lederer has worked with everyone, and been in everything. There is not a subgenre of entertainment that hasn’t had the benefit of her unique talent.

And that journey is the theme of this show, her first Edinburgh appearance in years. She recounts the waystations of that journey in all their absurd detail for a small preview audience – and they are many and hilarious. After early appearances on vehicles for (and by) the emerging alternative comedy stars such as The Young Ones, Happy Families, and later Bottom and French & Saunders, Lederer took a sidestep into the comedy masterpiece that was Naked Video.

Lederer recounts these adventures as though they were, first and foremost, an awfully big adventure. But by the law of diminishing returns she is soon describing the scramble to get her agent to put her up for things, and appearing in Splash with Tom Daley, and Big Brother. Funny as this is, we know it’s maybe not quite how it was. Lederer has the self-deprecation and such a highly refined sense of the absurdity of her career arc, to play it all for laughs.

He quickfire storytelling is chock-full of bitterly funny moments and they come so thick and fast, we barely have time to enjoy them before the story takes another turn. (Indeed, some of the funniest things she says are asides, dropped so casually that half of the time we’re only getting the joke when she’s moved on, and we must catch up.)

As funny as anything in the show is the slightly dotty, not-altogether-together persona that Lederer uses. She pops her spectacles in and out of her pocket to check notes written on the back of her hand, gets lost, finds her thread again, goes off on lengthy digressions and comes back circuitously. But let there be no doubt: this is an exceptionally gifted and intelligent comedian, with mastery both of her material and her time-honed technique. And, being a legend, she has stories to tell that will leave you in tears of laughter.

Script                     *****

Performance      *****

Production          ***

Peter McCall

 

‘The Weir’ review

Decadent

Lyric Theatre, Belfast

5th-30th September, 2017

 

Playwright Conor McPherson made his first foray into television thrillers with BBC Two’s ‘Paula’ earlier this year.  Although packed with haunting, eerie imagery, intriguing characters, and a gorgeously off-kilter feel to the whole thing, at the time this reviewer felt that the project ultimately, and frustratingly, failed to come together as a whole, falling short of a sense of dramatic satisfaction, or of things making proper sense in the end.  The same idea of not reaching a neat resolution can be said for the conclusion of ‘The Weir’, but, in this case, it absolutely, and brilliantly, works.

First performed in 1997, ‘The Weir’ sees a country pub in the middle of a winter gale invaded by five patrons- the barman, two regulars, one returnee, and a stranger.  Publican Brendan and customers Jack and Jim find themselves inevitably gripped by curiosity at the impending arrival of former resident-made-good Finbar, and a young Dublin woman, Valerie, who has just rented an old house in the town.  When the pair arrive, stories ensue around the fire as the winter wind howls outside, all with a ghostly or unnerving edge to them.  But one story proves to be far more chilling than the rest.

The first thing that must be praised by this reviewer is the set design.  It’s magnificent.  Designer Owen MacCarthaigh has crafted a pub interior that feels like it could be the local of any drinker around the country.  Proudly on display from the moment the audience enters the theatre, well before the lights go down, the detail is exquisite, from the photographs and memorabilia dotted around the walls, to the beer pumps, to the bag of sticks lying beside the fire, ready to fuel it later in the play.  Part of this reviewer’s anticipation for ‘The Weir’ was the knowledge that it was being produced by Decadent, having only fond memories of their superb staging work on ‘The Pillowman’ in 2015, and although there are none of the surprises or visual tricks that made that performance such an enthralling night of theatre, the sheer look of the set here is beautiful.  Any playwright seeking to have an authentic interior in their work would be lucky to have MacCarthaigh on board.  I really can’t say enough good things about it.

It’s just as well, because ‘The Weir’ is, visually, a very static play, with, as already suggested, none of the showy surprises of Decadent’s other work.  The only action onstage involves the coming and going of characters into and out of the pub, or to the bathroom, or gently moving about the room as they relay their stories.  If this sounds potentially mundane to watch, the sheer quality and power of the writing keeps it from ever becoming an issue.  As good as director Andrew Flynn is at keeping just enough movement going as to stop the eye from ever becoming lazy, this is a play that is all about the writing.  And what writing.

One of the best sequences in ‘Paula’ (and an example of the frustrating lack of further development rife in many aspects of that series) is a scene where the titular heroine recounts an eerie story to detective/love interest Mac about strange dreams she had when she was younger, of another life away from her real one, where another, much kinder and loving family raised her.  When she woke up, she would be utterly convinced that her other life was completely true, and that it had gone on for years, later discovering that sex is something that would bring her back to that surreal state.  ‘It gets me into trouble, Mac,’ she freely admits.  It’s a haunting, shiver-inducing scene.

Here, the audience gets to enjoy a succession of similarly unearthly stories, but without the same sense of dissatisfaction.  Each of the characters, joker Jack, flash Finbar, meek Jim and mysterious Valerie, all relay their strange tales in the presence of their barman-cum-counsellor Brendan, from eerie tales of knocking at the doors of a childhood house said to be situated on the ‘Fairy Road’, to a neighbour’s terror at the apparition of a woman on the stairs, to a deeply unsettling encounter at a graveside.  Nothing physically changes about the set during these tales, not even a shift in lighting.  All that occurs is the characters sitting or standing, and telling their fables.  And yet the audience is completely transported, there at the scene of each of the stories as we listen to them.  McPherson’s skillful, immersive writing draws us into these other worlds through a series of incredible monologues, all of which would be worthy of short plays in their own right (another similarity between this and ‘The Pillowman’).  Both Jack and Finbar’s tales are ghostly affairs with strong hints of the supernatural, quickly raising the hairs on one’s neck (a level of attention humourously exploited by Jack at one point), and leaving the viewer in a state of unease.  Jim’s too is an eerie tale, but one that takes on a more unusual quality than the others, the particular punchline sending a chill down the spine as we realise its implications.  You’ll crave the comfort of a warm bath afterwards.

And then we get to Valerie.  To anyone still unfamiliar with the play, it would be too much of a spoiler to go into the content of her tale, but within moments, the audience becomes aware that this a very different story to the rest, one that almost makes the ghost stories of the men start to feel silly and indulgent.  It’s a complete rug-pull, totally subverting what we think the play is before this point, and draws us into far more poignant, frightening and heartfelt territory.  The other characters are left in stunned silence by its conclusion.  Audiences will be too.

As good as the writing is, these excellent monologues would only be blueprints without such a high-quality cast to take them on.  The five characters complement one another beautifully, Patrick Ryan’s shy Brendan, the most ‘neutral’ of the group, simply listening, rather than contributing to, the stories, is the glue that holds everyone together, a quiet, unassuming, observant presence, endearingly trying to mask his attraction to Valerie early on, and mournfully looking on as he eventually realises her reasons for coming to town.  Marty Maguire’s jester Jack puts up a front of composure and joie-de-vivre as the local bachelor, making it all the more rewarding when we finally start to glimpse the insecurity underneath, resulting in one final, quietly heartbreaking story towards play’s end, very different from, and far more human than, the ones that have come before.  Garrett Keogh’s brash, confident businessman Finbar presents an air of superiority just about kept in check by an enduring fondness for his old haunt, and the faces that still reside there, clearly in his element showing an attractive young woman around town, but it’s this cocksure behaviour that makes his vulnerability in the midst of his own ghost story all the more affecting.  We’re taken back to his time as a young man, scared out of his wits on one dark night of the soul, and it’s a far cry from the older version we’ve been spending time with until now.

Frankie McCafferty brings an appropriate introverted personality to enduring mummy’s boy Jim, the best character to give his particular story to because of that very meekness.  McCafferty, during his tale, gives us a sense of Jim’s having been quietly traumatised by the particular phenomena his character may have come face to face with in a graveyard, and this reviewer was almost squirming in his seat as a result.  Kerri Quinn’s Valerie, meanwhile, is perhaps the most fascinating of all, Quinn bringing a slightly neurotic quality to her tale, all the more impressive for its having been well-hidden early on, and leaving the audience torn between viewing her as grieving or delusional by the end- most likely both.

This an altogether quieter, subtler affair than Decadent’s previous triumph at the Lyric, but no less powerful for it.  Blessed with a small but beautifully balanced ensemble cast, often sublime writing from a master playwright, gorgeous set design, and understated, pitch-perfect direction, ‘The Weir’, through the relaying of a not-entirely-harmonised set of stories by a group of lonely people, captures the simultaneous sense of isolation and community spirit of much of Ireland, and, as an example of the rich literary canon we enjoy here, makes this reviewer proud to come from that country.

 

Script ****

Performances ****

Production *****

 

Christopher Moore

‘Sarah, Sky and Seven Other Guys’ review

Liver and Lung Productions

C royale, Edinburgh

 

At the heart of ‘Sarah, Sky and Seven Other Guys’ is the story of a friendship that gradually starts to go sour.  We’ve all had them.  Whether as the result of malice by one or both parties, or simply beginning to drift away from or outgrow one another, we’ve all had friendships we once thought would last forever, but which ultimately come to a close.  And it’s that relatability that makes this play such a poignant, sad hour of theatre.

Housemates Sarah and Sky struggle to find a love interest that will last beyond the thrill of a one-night stand.  Whether it’s the tendency of men to play games with women’s feelings to get what they want in the short term, or the challenges faced by LGBT people of colour in finding a partner interested in more than app-facilitated no-strings fun, the two friends just can’t seem to acquire something more meaningful from the male sex, and the passing of a succession of men through their lives over the course of the play serves to demonstrate the truth of this struggle.

‘Sarah, Sky and Seven Other Guys’ was something of a unique theatrical experience for this reviewer.  In a festival whose trademark is small, intimate venues, this piece, in the basement Studio 2 of C royale, took the idea of close quarters to an extreme.  Essentially, the audience is in a bedroom with the characters, a seating capacity of about sixteen, with a huge, squeaky double bed yards away from the viewer no matter where they’re sitting lending an obvious sense of voyeurism to the point of almost feeling part of the action.  It certainly wouldn’t be for everyone.  But its intimacy is definitely a factor in the play having stood out in this reviewer’s mind.  Over the course of 50 minutes, we see a close friendship fracture and crack and, ultimately, break apart, and it’s difficult not to almost feel like an intruder watching these people’s lives play out.

Colourful Sky is an outwardly vibrant individual, bursting with life, and confidently attracting often attractive men into bed, yet, with the audience looking on at such close proximity, the mask quickly and easily slips in front of us, revealing the real, much less secure persona beneath.  Shafeeq Shajahan crafts a flawed, vulnerable, stubborn, emotionally wary protagonist, his Sky often clearly compensating for earlier mistreatment, prejudice (most explicitly suggested in the form of one posh upper class suitor, energetically played by Duncan Hendry, getting off on fantasies of colonial subjugation), and, at the very least, emotional abuse, by projecting an air of invincibility, and attempting to convince Sarah that he’s perfectly happy enjoying a life of partying and hedonism.  By play’s end, however, it becomes evident that much of his bravado has been a coping mechanism to get over one particular man, and, in one of the most pleasing aspects of the play, a near-moment of cliched passionate reunion with this ‘one that got away’ ultimately falls away, and the character fails to escape the repetitive cycle of sleeping around he obviously desperately wants to.

If there’s a criticism to be had, it’s that Shajahan’s performance is so effective, it arguably overshadows his co-star’s.  Sarah certainly starts the play in no better a position romantically than her best friend, yet her predicament never quite feels as pronounced as his.  There’s a sense that it wouldn’t be terribly hard for her to escape the rut she’s in if she put her mind to it, and it’s hard to tell whether this is more a result of the writing, or Hannah Shields’ performance- this reviewer would generously assume the former.  That being said, there’s great fun to be had in the character’s various dating blunders and faux pas, one slippery, fickle early conquest making us cringe as he makes a quick escape after the deed is done.  Later, in one of the best sequences of the play, one of her suitors, played enjoyably by actor Hraban Luyat, takes his passion for her to comical levels, leading to excruciatingly awkward attempts at sex.  The sequence would be toe-curling enough in its own right, but, in this reviewer’s showing, took on an even more surreal quality.  Luyat is, let’s say, a pleasant individual to look at in a state of undress, and one audience member sitting in front of me took this appreciation to frankly embarrassing extremes.  A protracted moment of Luyat’s character trying to put on a condom underneath the covers saw this eager viewer, aided by the intimacy of the space, actively and repeatedly rise out of his seat and crane for a better view, clearly hoping Luyat was method acting.  As one might guess, it was simultaneously mortifying and hilarious, producing much laughter from the rest of the audience.  To their credit, Luyat and Shields continued the scene visibly unfazed, when it would have been all too easy to have been put off their stride.  It inevitably brought the viewer out of  the story for a few moments, and yet, on a certain level, made for a more memorable theatrical experience than might otherwise have been the case, and so this reviewer can’t entirely bring himself to regret that it took place.  I can’t say I’d be in a particular hurry to share an audience space with that same gentleman again, though.

As previously suggested, ‘Sarah, Sky and Seven Other Guys’ ends on a downbeat note, as Sarah finally enters a more substantial relationship, and a wary Sky, clearly sensing she’ll soon want to move on, preemptively pushes her away, leaving the friends with little way back as they realise one is much more ready to settle down than the other.  I’m not entirely sure it’s the best conclusion the play could have had, the playfulness of the characters early on such that you feel more could have been done by both parties to rescue their closeness.  It’s almost like a beat is missed somewhere, the ending just a little too low-key.  Perhaps a revision to the closing moments of the script might be something for the team to think about for future runs.

On the whole, though, ‘Sarah, Sky and Seven Other Guys’ is a fun, funny, topical piece of theatre, with an affecting underlying sadness beneath the comedy.  This reviewer would be keen to see further productions by this energetic young company, and looks forward to seeing them return to the Fringe in future.

 

Script ***

Performances ****

Production ****

 

Christopher Moore