Saturday, August 23, 2008

Henry Rollins ****

Spoken-word performances are something which Henry Rollins is now well renowned for, and on the strength of this show it's easy to see why.

Barely pausing for breath, Rollins takes us on a rollercoaster monologue about US politics, world travel and Eddie Van Halen, seemingly pouring out streams of his own consciousness in a polished and powerhouse performance.

Funny and powerful, the greying tattooed former Black Flag frontman is adept at holding a sell-out crowd in the palm of his hand and the hour-long set flies past due to his charisma, talent and viewpoints.

Circus Oz ****

Circus Oz is, as the name gives away, an acrobatic and comedy act from Australia. Now in its 30th year (the show is subtitled '30th Birthday Bash'), the performers are all energetic and enthusiastic, and capable of some impressive feats of skill.

The usual routines, such as juggling and rope climbing are all present and correct, and carried out flawlessly and with visual flair. Highlights include a woman juggling / bouncing ping-pong balls (more impressive than it sounds here) and another female performer spinning around the stage inside a giant hula-hoop.

Live music is played by a band at the back of the stage throughout, and this gives a vaudeville burlesque feel to proceedings, especially as accordion is one of the instruments featured. Nods to Antipodean roots are also given though, most notably in an amusing and impressive routine where the performers - dressed as kangaroos - catapult each other and somersault off a see-saw.

It's all family friendly stuff and easily recommendable, due to its high spirits, amazing feats and comedy charm.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Tiger Lillies - Seven Deadly Sins *****

The Tiger Lillies are an acquired taste. A punk vaudeville burlesque freakshow. Right up my street, then.

In this show, the Lillies perform songs based on the seven deadly sins, the three musicians aided and abetted by the voluptuous Ophelia Bitz, burlesque star extraordinaire. Martyn Jacques falsettos his way through sick & twisted odes and ditties, including the classic "Kicking A Baby Down The Stairs", as Ms Bitz twists and cavorts, eating fire, stuffing her face or toying with a dildo...

You're either going to love this kind of thing, or hate it. The Tiger Lillies are that kind of 'all or nothing' group - indeed, after one of their slower piano-led pieces, Jacques berates one of the noisier sections of the audience: "if you're going to talk through my songs, just fucking leave". I'm right with him on that - these are songs that deserve to be heard, and the whole chaotic spectacle is an experience that demands attention.

The gay Punch & Jud(y)e sideshow that peppers the performance is a bit unnecessary, but it certainly adds to the whole freakish circus nature of the show, which, like La Clique, is perfectly suited for the burlesque interior of the Spiegeltent in which it is performed.

Mong Yeong (Love in Dream) *****

Mong Yeong is an original piece of theatre performed by an accomplished South Korean company.

A moving and thought-provoking piece examining love, loss and reincarnation, this is performed mostly in Korean, with some English interjections to help explain the story (and also for dramatic effect, in some instances).

It deals with a recently-widowed woman and her grief-stricken descent into madness and desperation. The simple set and strong lighting evokes the mood excellently, with a sheet being used to denote the barrier between this life and the next. Beautiful imagery, such as white-clad hooded souls crossing the boundary into the afterlife, is used evocatively throughout and the live music accompaniment is also first class.

As the tale unfolds, the talented cast spin a touching and contemplative tale that is at times intensely moving and beautifully portrayed. With its themes of loss, religion and - ultimately - hope, this is one of the finest pieces of theatre I've seen at the Fringe, and would not be out of place in the Edinburgh International Festival itself.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Samurai Spirit ****

Samurai Spirit is a visually striking and superbly choreographed show of Japanese sword fighting skills.

The cast demonstrate their prowess with katana & bo via a series of set-pieces (the lone samurai against attacking bandits, one man defending a graceful female with parasol, etc) in which the moves and fighting is excellently portrayed.

There are a couple of moments of lighter relief, including one in which a female member of the audience is chosen to learn a few moves, but most are done with seriousness and grace. The cast were involved in the fight choreography for Kill Bill, and the last segment pays homage to this fact with the black-suited combatants attacking each other with flashing blades whilst the music from the movie pumps out in the background.

Sitting in the front row added to the experience, as did sitting beside a couple of Japanese girls in the audience who were loving every minute with infectious enthusiasm.

The Factory *****

Set in the dark, dusty and claustrophobic caverns underneath the Pleasance, The Factory attempts to give a taste of the experience of Jewish concentration camp victims during the Holocaust.

Given the seriousness of the subject matter, this was important to get right - any patronising trivialisation of the topic would have been unforgivable. Fortunately, this powerhouse production delivers an experience that is unlike any other and pays due respect to its subject.

From the outset, we are disoriented. Herded into a low-ceilinged cavern, we are shouted at, sworn at, threatened and immediately split into two single column rows, commanded to keep quiet and face straight ahead. Even when one audience member mutters something to his companion, one of the five-strong cast runs up to him and screams "no fucking noise" inches from his face.

The cast - one female and four male, all dressed in the striped and tattered 'uniform' of the internees - then proceed to spend 5 minutes banging metal plates hanging on the walls. The noise is deafening and by the end we are pummelled into submission.

We are then led through a series of rooms, ordered into our places by a screaming guard. The experience of the inmates is brought to life by two of the performers, one of whom is being forced to work for the guards; the other determined not to accept her fate without a struggle.

It is obvious as we continue that struggle is useless and this defiance turns into appalling acceptance and tragic inevitability. In the penultimate room, orders are given to strip, and the performers stand amongst us naked, shivering and crying. Then, with increasing fear and desperation, we are commanded one by one into a tiny room, crammed next to each other and the naked cast. The three victims in our midst speak desperately and ultimately end up singing a Jewish hymn of devotion and defiance before, suddenly, the lights go out. When they go back on, they are lying, dead in our midst. They are carried out and a lone performer appears at the door, desperately repeating the phrase 'remember us' over and over again.

We are then led out into the harsh daylight, the cast nowhere to be seen. Impossible to forget and equally impossible not to remember those that didn't get the luxury of ever seeing daylight again.

A stunning accomplishment.

The Aluminum Show *****

At last year's Fringe, a show called Fuertzabruta appeared out of nowhere and created a huge buzz through its use of artistic, striking imagery, dance music and sheer originality. The Aluminum Show isn't quite up there with Fuertzabruta's standard, but it's not far off it.

A cast of Israeli dancers and performance artists spend an hour bringing various forms of aluminum (tubing, foil sheets, balloons, etc) to life in ever-more original and visually arresting ways. 

At first, the stage is covered with giant aluminum tubes. These suddenly inflate and vanish off up to the ceiling, leaving several person-sized tubes alone under the spotlights. Of course, the performers are inside and move and dance, breathing surreal life into the worm-like pieces.

In another striking piece, Warhol-like silver balloons of varying sizes are filled with air and then used to assemble a giant metal mannequin, which looms over the audience before marching off stage.

All the while, techno / rave music pumps out and at times gigantic tubes or sheets of foil are passed out into the audience, turning the whole space into a writhing silver mass.

There is nothing particularly physically impressive about the show, but that's not what it's about - it's all about the imagery and the different interpretations and bizarre uses for normally lifeless bits of foil, strands and fragments of which are blasted into the crowd at the end.

Shows like this take on the feeling of being at a party rather than a performance, and the group pull this off well, meaning everyone's pumped up and elated as we file out into the by comparison grey and dull Edinburgh evening.

Drum Drama ****

Drum Drama is a joyous and exuberant percussion show performed by a troupe of young Chinese drummers.

Taking place in the rather incongrous setting of an Edinburgh nightclub, this show had enough dazzling costumery, synchronised percussion and cultural pride to be highly enjoyable.

From the pounding opening number, performed by the female members of the troupe dressed in striking Peking Opera costumes, to the closing routine, being a celebratory drum dance performed by the entire group, this was impressive and uplifting stuff.

There have been many Asian shows of interest this year, and although I've not seen them all, I've enjoyed all that I've managed to fit in. Drum Drama is no exception, and provides a fascinating glimpse into the culture, skill and elation of Chinese drumming done at its best.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Jim Rose Circus ?????

It's impossible to award a rating to the Jim Rose Circus on anything approaching artistic merit, so I won't even bother...

If La Clique is the classy, elegant and beautiful femme fatale of the circus, then Jim Rose is her sick and twisted little brother, pulling wings off flies and listening to Slipknot records in a pool of his own making.

If any of the following things offend you, stay away:
  • blood
  • genitals
  • blood on genitals
  • swallowing goldfish
  • genitals with knives in them
  • foul language
  • genitals in a raccoon trap
If you're still here, then strap yourself in - it gets worse. 

This isn't to say I didn't enjoy the show, in a voyeuristic sense at least. There's things that happen live on stage (and thoughtfully projected on a big video screen at the back) that wouldn't be out of place in a Bangkok sex club. There is a thin premise to the show (that the live heavy metal band, Warthog, are pleading with Jim Rose's Satan to let them into hell), but that is of course superfluous to all the filth and fluid on show.

He's a sicko, as are his cast. But then he made 16 quid per person from this mostly pissed-up crowd, so he's not daft.

Charlie Victor Romeo *****

Charlie Victor Romeo is the code for the Cockpit Voice Recorder, better known as the 'black box' carried on board every aircraft, which records all radio and spoken voice for the duration of the flight.

It is also the name of a show by this group of American actors, who dramatise real-life black-box recordings from air disasters from the 80s and 90s.

The set is impressive, consisting of a large nose cone behind which an aircraft's cockpit is set up, complete with security door leading to the rest of the plane. The cockpit is empty as we take our seats, and ambient music and radio chatter plays over the PA, creating an atmosphere of expectation and drama.

Two of the female cast members then give us a safety briefing, and the first vignette begins. A slide projection gives us information on the flight number, date and location, together with some indication of what impending disaster is about to unfold, such as 'incorrect altimeter setting'. Then, two actors in civilian pilot uniform sit in the cockpit and then begin to repeat one of the black box recordings verbatim. 

There are several things which impress and affect about this production. First, of course, is the fact you are listening to a dramatisation of something which actually happened, and are listening to the actual words spoken by the cockpit crew and air-traffic control staff at the time.
After the first, tense episode is over, the slide returns and indicates 'no casualties', but this is an atypical example of what is yet to come.

Each subsequent dramatisation, in which the eight-strong cast switch places and roles, is of a real disaster. What moves most here is the fact you are hearing people's final words - that, and the utmost professionalism and determination of the pilots and crew to avoid catastrophe. Each vignette ends with brutal abruptness and darkness, before the slide returns to, more often than not, inform us that there were 'no survivors'. This is relentlessly powerful stuff, and it comes as something of a relief when the show is over.

Special mention must go to the sound production here, as it is superb. Engine noise, instrument warning signals, explosions - all of these create a cacophony of noise, adding to the confusion and panic of each episode's last few moments. Acting is equally impressive throughout, and the straight, verbatim telling of the recordings is a concept that works well as a testament to those who lost lives, without being exploitative.

Ultimately, although shaken and beaten by the production, you leave it with a lasting impression not only of the frailty of life, but of also of its compassion, determination and bravery.

Dragon Lady - Being Anna May Wong ***

After a narrow escape where we started off in the wrong venue about to watch a comedy show about Shakespeare, we made it to Dragon Lady by the skin of our teeth.

In this show, Alice Lee plays Anna May Wong, a Chinese movie star who featured in Hollywood films in the 20s and 30s. During this one-woman performance, we learn of the challenges and inherent racism in the movie business at the time, with Wong forever being cast as the 'exotic' vamp or villain, and never allowed a happy ending.

Lee portrays Wong well, and we journey with her through her initial excitement and optimism through her frustration and spiral into alcoholism and loneliness. A thought-provoking and accomplished piece of theatre, Dragon Lady only suffers from having a rather abrupt ending, leaving those of us unfamiliar with Wong's life keen to find out more. But I suppose that's what Wikipedia's for...

Family ****

Family is a physical show featuring a troupe of South Korean taekwon & breakdance experts. Taking the concept that two families, one specialising in each discipline, are competing in a 'Best Family' competition, they backflip, kick, handstand and dance throughout the performance, injecting some typically Asian humour into proceedings as they do so.

The physical feats of the performers are impressive, be they standing backflips, high kicks or breakdance contortionism. The whole thing is done with such good humour and attitude, that it is hard not to enjoy and be caught up in the celebratory mood of the finale, where all of the performers are busting moves on stage at the same time.

Definitely one for all the Family.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Feasting on Flesh **

We were given free tickets to see this show whilst drinking in the Assembly Rooms and it fitted into the schedule (although the plans for an early night were quashed).

Feasting on Flesh is a burlesque cabaret show performed by 6 Australian players, four men and two women. The theme of food runs throughout, and we are therefore treated to the sight of a naked girl being tightly wrapped in clingfilm, a fat drag artist stuffing his face, and an impatient diner getting cake stuffed up his backside.

Bits of this worked, bits didn't, and despite the nudity and bawdiness, this wasn't quite as shocking as the cast probably believed it to be. That said, it was free and an interesting enough way to spend an hour.

We certainly weren't hungry afterwards...

Beyond Breaking Glass ****

Beyond Breaking Glass is an autobiographical show featuring post-punk star Hazel O'Connor, best remembered for her lead role in the film Breaking Glass.

Here, like Joan Rivers and Britt Ekland, she takes the stage to reflect upon her life, recalling events and episodes in punk Britain, America and Ireland, her current home. 

What makes this work is that her story is broken up by her performing some of her best-known songs, such as Eighth Day and Will You, accompanied by a talented young Irish harpist who also provides backing vocals.

I remember my parents not letting me go and see Hazel O'Connor live back in 82 because she was "too dangerous(!)" so it was a real treat to see her and hear some of the songs I remember so well from my misspent youth.

Part monologue and part gig, Beyond Breaking Glass doesn't contain much to make you think, but does feature some great songs, and O'Connor's folk-ish voice certainly hasn't diminished over the years.

Vincent *****

Vincent, a play penned by Leonard Nimmoy, is a one-man production in which Theo Van Gogh, devoted brother and benefactor of Vincent, ponders and reflects on his famous sibling's life one week after his death.

Based on the real-life letters Vincent wrote to his brother throughout his life, the play is moving, emotional and given impact due to its personal viewpoint. The acting is impressive, with the performer adopting a Dutch accent throughout (although, and I'm nit-picking here, this does sometimes seem to stray into Spanish...). Paintings and sketches by Van Gogh are projected onto a screen at the back of the stage during the performance, and these are used to illustrate points of his life, such as the period he spent as a preacher in a Belgian mining community.

Van Gogh's story is a tragic one, and this is brought home via the writing and the performance, which very quickly convinces you that it is actually Theo Van Gogh you are listening to, such is the power of the actor portraying the part. You feel you are being given a very personal and candid view of real events by a loving and grieving brother, and by the end, you share these feelings and are left pondering the nature of family love and of artistic madness.

Etcetera ***

Etcetera is an experimental piece of puppet theatre from Eastern Europe. As the show begins, the stage is filled with tables and lifeless and expressionless cloth dolls draped upon them and lying on the floor.

Then, three black-clad women take the stage and begin to circle the puppets, choosing one after another and bringing them to life. Without words, each puppet begins to move and acts out a small vignette, ultimately leading to the doll's doom. Some are hung by ropes they are unable to escape; others strapped to a bicycle wheel; even a tiny child puppet doesn't escape its fate.

By the end of the performance, each doll is taped up to a black backdrop, and they hang there, now even more lifeless than they began. The puppeteers, like Greek Fates, have toyed with them and now melt away once more into the darkness.

Although a little overlong and at times obtuse, Etcetera contains enough visually striking imagery and poignant moments to ultimately impress.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Return of the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre ***** (and a half)

For the uninitiated, The Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre is, as the name would imply, a one-man comedy show with the performer hidden behind a Punch & Judy style booth whilst he acts out a routine using socks with googly eyes stuck on them with both his hands. In a falsetto voice.

I saw this last year and loved it, although I thought part of that may be the novelty. I can happily confirm that this stands well to a repeat viewing, especially as all the material is new. Taking the conceit that they are trying to impress TV execs in the audience, the socks spend an intentionally shambolic and hilarious hour ripping through sketches and routines both scripted and improvised.

It opens with the theme tune ("I'm a sock, I'm a sock, you wear me on your feet not on your cock") and finishes with an extremely funny version of King Lear (featuring the three daughters, Gonorrhea, Ronald Regan and Cordelia Smith...). In between, we are treated to everything from their Christmas special ("and an iPhone not in a pear tree") to a special guest appearance from Kraftwerk...

Inspired lunacy, then, and what is impressive is that after a couple of minutes, you are totally bought into the idea that these socks have a life of their own - and it's only when the performer gets up from behind the stage at the end of the show that you remember this fast-paced and hilarious mayhem is all the work of one man - a man who has spent the last hour performing a double-act with himself in a high-pitched voice.

They were the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppets. And so was him. And so was he.

The Elephant Man ****

The Elephant Man is a moving and accomplished one-man production of the story of John Merrick, most notably made famous by the David Lynch movie.

The actor does an excellent job in not only portraying the tortured prisoner of his own flesh Merrick, but some of the ancillary characters, such as the freakshow proprietor, and the surgeon who befriends and takes care of Merrick in the last phase of his life.

Using props such as tailors dummies, hospital screens and a trapeze to excellent effect, the performer takes us from moments of humour and vaudeville to episodes of deeply moving emotion and drama. None of this feels forced, and it is to his credit that he captivates throughout, even though the sound of the fan in the small, stuffy theatre threatened to drown him out at times.

A tragic tale, excellently told and with just the right balance of emotion and mood - this is an easy show to recommend.

The Terrible Infants *****

I've never seen a show quite like The Terrible Infants before. Five performers - three male and two female - dressed like vaudeville circus performers, use music, puppetry and props to tell several original Roald Dahl-like morality tales. 

The story of Tilly, the girl who tells so many tall tales she grows a tail, runs through the performance and is interwoven with other, self-contained stories, such as Thingamiboy, the boy who wasn't there; and Tom, the lad that ate his mum - you kind of get the gist of where they're coming from here.

The whole is performed in a completely charming manner with a childlike glee and delight expressed by the players and some effective and at times haunting music played throughout. Even some problems with one of the microphones being used didn't dampen proceedings, and the Terrible Infants succeeded in transporting us all back to our childhood.

Given the subject matter and the family-friendly nature of the production, I was surprised not to see many children in the audience - though I suppose that goes to show we all still nurture that child within us, and delight in a stylish and bewitching show like this to bring it to the fore again, even for a short while.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Footsbarn's A Midsummer Night's Dream *****

Travelling theatre company Footsbarn's performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream takes place on a big top erected on Edinburgh's Calton Hill.

Featuring an international cast of players, the stylish production takes place on and around an apron stage, with a quartet of musicians providing live medieval style music off to the side. 

Costumes and set are all visually pleasing, and are used to good effect to evoke the ethereal atmosphere of the forest at night. The actors are all wonderful in terms of timing and comedy, and you can tell this is one of the plays that the company have spent their 35 years of existence honing to perfection.

Special mention should go to the actor who plays Bottom (and Lysander - most of the troupe take on dual roles during the performance), whose facial expressions and comedy timing suit the performance perfectly. Also to the Japanese actress who plays Titania, flitting between English and Japanese to memorably portray the faerie mysticism of her character.

Part bawdy and burlesque, part stylised and physical, you can imagine this is how Shakespeare was performed back in Elizabethan times. As the performers circle the stage, dancing slowly whilst the musicians play a madrigal, the true spirit of Shakespearean theatre is conjured up before us and casts us all under its spell.

Children of the Khmer *****(*)

Another show which deserves more than five stars, Children of the Khmer is one of the most stunning, uplifting and moving shows I've seen this year.

Incense fills the air as you file in to the church hall in which this takes place, immediately setting the atmosphere and mood. Then, each holding candles, the young troupe of male and female performers come on stage whilst live traditional music and singing play behind them. Then, after a simple yet beautiful temple ceremony, the show proper begins.

Elegant and evocative temple dances, joyous and uplifting drumming, masked dance routines between monkeys and birds, traditional folk dances - each segment of the show is as stunning as the last. Wearing gorgeously colourful traditional costumes, the young performer look energetic, happy and - most notably during the temple dance - beautiful.

Towards the end of the show, two of the performers hold a large white sheet onto which a video is projected, explaining the background of the youths we have just spent a memorable 50 minutes enthralled by. Most with parents and family killed in past conflicts and living in poverty-stricken condition, they are all members of a school which tries to teach youngsters the tradition and culture of their country, to ensure it is not forgotten. Based on the performance, they have been taught well, as the dancing, music, singing and attitude of the troupe is faultless.

At the end, the entire company line up at the exit and create an uplifting cacophony of drum and cymbals, each one bowing and saying thank you to us as we file past them. Impossible to leave without a smile, then - and equally hard to not be immensely touched and uplifted by the whole performance.

Chess *****

Chess is an ancient Chinese legend performed in a stylised and physical manner by a Taiwanese theatre group new to the Edinburgh Festival.

Telling the tale of two warring generals sparring for the love of a beautiful queen, the cast adopt costume and movement reminiscent of Peking Opera performance, moving gracefully and in exaggerated fashion around the stage.

Costumes are stunning, and the onstage choreography is fluid and visually striking. Performed mostly without dialogue, there is however some English narration provided by an attendant maidservant and the traditional Chinese percussionists who sit at the side of the stage, providing live accompaniment to the unfolding action.

Performances like this are special in that they give a glimpse into another culture and style of theatre that is otherwise hard to find. And when done with such grace, beauty and style as this production, the sense of wonder and magic is complete. Based on this show, I hope the company return again next year, and once again open a door into another time and place for us fortunate enough to step through.