November 29, 2021

A wet topical, Chekhovian, arts & crafty, improvised afternoon at the Edinburgh Fringe

Presumably it takes a while to develop trench-foot? I don’t ask idly – the weather had decided summer was over and it was time for the Scottish monsoon season. The Edinburgh fringe festival is spread all over the smoky-stoned Scottish capital city, which in the sunshine makes for pleasant strolls between venues. It’s different in the rain. Not only is there water launched at you from above, wonky paving slabs below conspire to splash the stuff up your legs. Edinburgh was losing some of its charm, especially for a fellow dressed for summer and wearing canvas shoes that were soaked by elevenses.

I found myself at the Three Sisters, home of the largest free fringe festival in the world. Here the productions are free – if you like what you see you donate at the end. It was raining and huddling was the order of the day. According to the brochure the next production to start was Smart Attack! in theYurt Locker. This really is a yurt in the middle of the courtyard. A small yurt. But it looked waterproof.

Smart Attack! stars Lucy Fennel and Rebecca Alloway, along with a talking French paintbrush. Spoofing a ramshackle kids’ TV programme it’s an enjoyable hour of arts and crafts comedy, a Blue Peter type show where the hosts over-share and the papier-mâché projects are politically right-on. Enthusiastic and optimistic, you can take your kids, but you’ll also enjoy it yourself. Silly, in a good way.

Afterwards I headed straight to the wrong theatre for the next show. There are over 250 venues so it was bound to happen eventually. I went to 82 rather than 72 but luckily I was near enough and merely had to schlep in even wetter shoes along Clerk street. I made it to the studio at Zoo Southside, and sat down wondering if feet can go mouldy.

Bite size Chekhov gives us three of the Russian’s plays in less than an hour – The Dangers of Tobacco, The Proposal and Swansong. At first glance Chekhov doesn’ t seem to be the crowd-pleaser on which to build a successful fringe show, but the young company give an impressive display and bring out the humour in his one act plays. d’Animate have been performing this production at the fringe since 2012 and it has become a slick affair. Carefully choreographed, much thought has been given to the changes between the plays, most notably in Will Mytum’s conversion from patrician father to drunk old actor between The Proposal and Swansong.

Mytum is joined by Michael Rivers and Maeve Smyth, forming a triumvirate skilled in upbeat, energetic physical theatre.

Of the three plays the central The Proposal is perfect Edinburgh fare. The hypochondriac Ivan Vassiliyitch Lomov visits his neighbour, in order to propose to the daughter of the house. Lomov is played bent double by Rivers, with illness and suffering galore (although he didn’t seem to have sodden feet). Before he can get to the point of his visit the conversation takes an argumentative turn. Enjoyable and a fun introduction to Chekhov’s work.

To the Pleasance Courtyard, after sheltering in a doorway for a while before realising the rain wasn’t going to abate. Newsrevue is a festival classic, drawing crowds since 2003. A musical sketch show, pianist Michael Riley has a large role accompanying the songs and linking the sketches with bursts of music . He and his piano have a prominent position centre-stage whilst Will Mulvey, Mimi Edwards, Alice Marshall and Matt Lee-Steer sing and speak their way through sketches, songs, and one accurate Michael McIntyre impression.

News revue cares little for good taste. There are plenty of attacking sketches, with victims from Rebecca Brookes to Nick Clegg and Oscar Pistorius to Nigel Farage. Coldplay front man Chris Martin might be a fair target but the show also gets laughs from his son’s name, as well as more laughs because the boy is being bullied because of his name. The show is on more successful ground when tackling politics. A quick cabinet reshuffle skit is probably more honest than we’d hope, but the depiction of Scotland’s potential departure from the UK is the best segment. Scotland as a wife walking out on a husband paying scant attention is hilariously accurate. The topic comes up again later and is given the Les Mis treatment. Like all sketch shows it hits and misses, but with an hour of material there are a lot more hits than misses.

The last performance of the day was Lights! Camera! Improvise! Based on audience suggestions for genre, location and title the cast improvise a movie. Given that my least favourite film genres are horror and zombies it didn’t start well when the most popular audience requests were horror and zombie. Luckily the final vote went to gangsters.

Jonathan Sayer plays Oscar, the facilitator of the evening. He takes the suggestions from the audience and then sits in a director’s chair to the edge of the stage. Two musicians add sound effects and seven actors, five men and two women, including a particularly amusing Henry Shields, improvise the film. Oscar pretends to control the action with a remote control.

The night’s movie became a violent thriller about penguin smuggling in Barbados. With Big Mama and her sidekick trying to bring down the evil Count it was a solid if not hilarious creation, though the potential for hilarity was obvious.

The character of Oscar gives a back up in case things go wrong, the improvisation fails or the film becomes directionless. He can pause the action and comment on what is happening. However this evening he took over too often, stopping the action and announcing what was about to happen, rather than letting the actors improvise the story. There is improvisation within the scenes from the large cast, but Oscar is omnipotent and tells us what is going to happen.

The idea is a good one, and it’s the sort of show you could see again and again. Every evening will be completely different and I’d like to go back.

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