Category Archives: Edinburgh 2009

The Assassination Of Paris Hilton

THEATRE
The Assassination Of Paris Hilton
Assembly@George Street (Venue 3)
3 stars ***

IN THE LADIES’ TOILETS at the Assembly Rooms, something is stirring.  Doors slam, wafts of designer perfume fill the air, in one of the cubicles someone is vomiting noisily after an excess of drink and drugs; and in front of the mirrors, pairs of gorgeous girls pout and back-comb, touch up their lippy, and adjust their boob-tubes.  But this is no ordinary Saturday-night scenario; because these girls are guests or gatecrashers at a serious celebrity party, and two of them are planning – out of envy, disgust or rage – to assassinate the hotel heiress and celebrity-mag diva Paris Hilton, who is expected any minute.

Delivered by Racked Theatre of London in 20-minutes of high-octane, top-decibel drama, Megan Ford’s play is less about celebrity than its title might suggest; in the end, it seems to be about unrequited love, and the desperate need for would-be assassin Maggie to win a place in the heart of Saffron, whom she adores.   But if the play seems slightly unsure about its focus, it still bursts with talent, potential and energy, and leaves Its 20-strong audience – crammed in at either end of the smallest room – gasping for breath. Racked have left a vivid calling-card on the Edinburgh Fringe, in other words; and my guess is that we’ll be hearing from them again.

Joyce McMillan
Until 30 August
p. 180

ENDS ENDS

A Promised Land

THEATRE
A Promised Land
Scottish Storytelling  Centre (Venue 30)
3 stars ***

VERY FEW SCOTS met their end in the death camps of the holocaust; but one of them was teacher and missionary Jane Haining, who was transported to Auschwitz in the early years of the Second World War, after refusing to abandon her post as the supervisor of a Budapest orphanage for destitute Jewish children.  Raymond Raszkowski Ross’s new play seeks to remember Jane’s life through her relationship with a fictional character, Rivka Feldman, whom she meets in Auschwitz; in the play, Rivka has arrived in postwar Scotland to make a promised pilgrimage to Jane’s home, but finds herself arrested and interrogated as a Jewish terrorist because she is carrying a gun.

The play therefore moves backwards and forwards between Rivka’s interrogation in Scotland, Jane’s interrogation in Hungary, and a scene in Auschwitz between Jane and Rivka’s brother, with Corinne Harris making a beautiful job of playing both women, and John McColl as all the men.  Sometimes, the story becomes a shade confusing, as Ross piles on the history lessons about the founding of Israel, and Britain’s questionable role in the tangled Middle Eastern politics of the time; and in the end, the survivor Rivka comes to seem more of a heroine than the victim, Jane, who quietly succumbs to her fate.  But this is is still a strong, moving and enjoyable piece of drama, performed with great commitment, and directed with sober intelligence and feeling by the Storytelling Centre’s boss, Donald Smith.

Joyce McMillan
Until 29 August
p. 222

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Gagarin Way

THEATRE
Gagarin Way
Stand Comedy Club III (Venue 12)
3 stars ***

IT’S A FINE THING to see an audience more attuned to comedy piling into Stand III in York Place to see a 21st century Scottish play as fine as Gregory Burke’s Gagarin Way; and finer still to see four men from the world of stand-up – Phil Nichol, Jim Muir, Will Andrews and Bruce Morton – pitting themselves against its demands.

What follows, though, is pretty much an object lesson in how tough it is to perform this kind of action drama, while giving full value to every word of Burke’s famously witty and allusive text.  In a crisis-hit year when the kidnapping of overpaid bosses has become a popular form of industrial action in some parts of the world, Burke’s story of two employees at a Dunfermline microchip plant who decide – as a grand gesture of rebellion or rage – to kidnap and kill a visiting consultant from head office, has never been more topical; and all four men inhabit their roles with impressive intensity and commitment, with Nichol in particular capturing all the nihilistic nervous energy of the ringleader, Eddie.

In the end, though, the cast often seem defeated by the vocal demands of the piece, which depends on a combination of  clear articulation, rapid-fire Dunfemline street-speak, perfect timing, and plenty of projection, that often overwhelms even fully-trained actors.  The result is that many of the show’s brilliant comic one-liners disappear in the rush, or are salvaged by the audience a split-second too late; and although the play still makes its bleak and frightening point in the end, much of its rhythmic power, and some of its glorious intellectual and cultural detail, are lost in transit.

Joyce McMillan
Until 30 August
p. 197

ENDS ENDS

Under Glass and Must: The Inside Story

THEATRE
Under Glass
McEwan Hall (Venue 25)
4 stars ***
Must: The Inside Story
University of Edinburgh Medical School (Venue 295)
3 stars ***

IN THE YEAR of an official Festival built around the idea of the Enlightenment, it’s interesting to see the imagery of medical science featuring in an ever-wider range of shows.   It emerged this week in the visual elements of the beautiful Il Ritorno d’Ulisse, at the King’s Theatre; and now, here are two Fringe shows – both produced by Fuel of London – that not only use medical and scientific imagery, but are staged around Edinburgh University’s Medical School area.

The Clod Ensemble’s Under Glass has already been seen in London in a more extensive form; but here, it involves a four-piece, 25-minute dance-installation work, staged with terrific intensity in the dark, curving basement corridors of the McEwan Hall.  The four performers are all confined within differently-shaped glass containers – a bell-jar, a display-case, an aquarium-like wall cabinet, a glass frame on a floor; and within these, they act out different experiences of stress and pressure, to the sound of a remarkable soundtrack by composer Paul Clark, featuring fragments of poetry about some rain-soaked post-apocalyptic world.

The effect is intensely tragic, conveying as it does an impression of people who believed they had infinite space and time, but in fact find that the limits of their freedom – and perhaps of their lives – are far closer than they think; and the quality of the performance is astonishing, short but unforgettable.

Peggy Shaw’s Must: The Inside Story, also created with Clod Ensemble and director Suzy Wilson, seems more like a work still in progress than Fuel’s other Edinburgh shows.  Staged in the wonderful anatomy lecture theatre of the medical school, it touches on Shaw’s story as a woman in her Sixties who dresses as a man; and it’s illustrated by an astonishingly beautiful series of  projected photographs of the tissues of the body, often magnified many times, as well as by a beautiful small book.

For me, though, the relationship between the images and the performance lacks dynamism, as if Shaw hadn’t yet quite decided how she wanted to shape her story.   In one apparently climactic moment, she offers to show us her ambiguous body.  But she does not do so; and not all the ministrations of a fine three-piece jazz ensemble, playing from the well of the lecture-theatre, can erase the feeling that Shaw has agreed to give a performance about her life, but then somehow half-wishes she hadn’t.

Joyce McMillan
Under Glass until 29 August
Must: The Inside Story until 31 August
pp. 235, 213

ENDS ENDS

F**cked

THEATRE
F**ked
Assembly@George Street (Venue 3)
3 stars ***

IT HAS AN in-your-face title and a late-evening slot that invites rowdy responses; but all the same, there’s something sad,  gentle and thought-provoking about Penelope Skinner’s neat 55-minute monologue, presented at the Assembly Rooms by the ambitious Tangram Company, and beautifully performed by Becci Gemmell.  F is a woman of 25 whose life is heading towards rock-bottom; she works as a erotic dancer in a seedy club, she has sex with the wrong men, she drinks too much, earns too little, and is often abused, both physically and psychologically.

On one particularly hung-over morning, she stumbles across an old notebook full of dream and stories, written when she was 12; and Skinner’s poignant play leads us back in time, through the series of sexual and emotional disappointments and losses that seem to have broken F’s heart, and her spirit.  It’s not a wholly depressing play; there’s an energy in the writing, and in Becci Gemmell’s performance, that suggest F’s story is not finished yet.  But the play has plenty to say about the ways in which our supposedly liberated sexual culture can abuse and exploit young women; and leave them without the loving relationships they need, at a crucial moment of their lives.

Joyce McMillan
Until 31 August
p.197

ENDS ENDS

Kursk, The 14th Tale, Iris Brunette

THEATRE
Kursk
University of Edinburgh Drill Hall (Venue 358)
4 stars ****
The 14th Tale
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)
4 stars ****
Iris Brunette
University of Edinburgh Medical School (Venue 295)
4 stars ****

THERE’S A WIDESPREAD feeling, in comtemporary theatre, that the relationship between performance and audience is changing, perhaps for good.  Audiences, so the argument goes, are no longer happy just to sit in the dark, watching actors do their stuff; they want theatre “with”, rather than theatre “for”, and some kind of interactive experience.

And if there’s one young production company in British theatre that seems bent on exploring the full range of possibilities in the audience-performnace relatgionship, it’s Fuel Theatre of London, who present a powerful and fascinating programme of six shows on this year’s Fringe.  Their flagship Fringe production Kursk, for example, is in may ways a tightly-written conventional drama – created by Sound & Fury with the playwright Bryony Lavery, and already much admired in London – about a group of submariners patrolling the Arctic seas at the time of the Kursk disasater of 2000, when a state-of-the-art Russian nuclear submarine sank to the seabed, leaving more than 50 crew members trapped and doomed.

The show is transformed into an unforgettable piece of total theatre, though, by the simple device of limiting the audience to a few dozen people, and allowing us to promenade around what seems like the control-room of the submarine, while the actors run and jostle past us.  The design, by John Bausor, is tremendous, expertly evoking the ultimate confined space in which the whole structure is built around the key functions of a  mighty naval machine.  Like all good drama about war and weapons, Kursk tends towards the obvious conclusion that fighting men have more in common with each other than with the commanders who send them out to risk their lives; but it achieves its effect with an understated power, and a feast of fine ensemble acting, that leaves an indelible impression.

Inua Ellam’s 14th Tale, by contrast, is a straightforward monologue, conventionally delivered in a tiny temporary studio at the Pleasance Garden; and it deals with what is, in outline, the familiar subject of a painful transition from boyhood into manhood.  But for all its formal simplicity, the 14th Tale comes as a sharp reminder of the power of language and rhythm in theatre, and of how dramatic poetry can create whole worlds through the voice of a single performer.

Tracing a fictional version of Ellam’s fraught childhood in Nigeria, Britain,  Ireland, and back in London, the text uses elements of rhyme, rap and visionary lyrical poetry to convey a sense of how a boy born into a culture of mindless rebellion against all forms of authority gradually begins to learn how to take his elders – and particularly his father – more seriously.  There’s something uniquely 21st century about Ellam’s poetic voice, which somehow absorbs the whole experience of colonialism without being totally defined by it; and which swoops across continents, without ever losing touch with the intimate grass roots of human experience.

Melanie Wilson is also a monologue artist; but she presents her latest and already much-praised work Iris Brunette to an audience ranged on simple chairs around a dark, intimate space in the Medical School, and picked out one by one, in pools of light, as the interactive object of her interest, and perhaps of her obsession.

The story she tells, over 60 minutes, is of a woman pursuing a man through a city on the edge of disintegration; her magnificent sound design echoes with music, and ghosts of normal city sound, and deep, shuddering noises of collapse, like the long reverberating fall of the Twin Towers.  At the core of this piece lies one of the key themes of this Fringe, in the shape of the desperate search for redemption through the magic of a one-to-one relationship, while the world seems to cave in around us. And although Wilson’s show is quiet in tone, she emerges as a remarkable poet in word and sound, going straight to the heart of that longing for a last, precious touch of intimacy before dying  that is one of the key emotions of our time.

Joyce McMillan
Kursk and The 14th Tale until 29 August
Iris Brunette until 30 August
pp. 205, 196, 202

ENDS ENDS

A Life In Three Acts – Bette Bourne and Mark Ravenhill

THEATRE
A Life In Three Acts Parts 1, 2, and 3
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
4 stars ****

THE WAVE of verbatim theatre that swept across Britain’s stages in the first half of this decade is subsiding now; but it has left its traces everywhere, as theatre-makers continue to explore the borderlands between artful performance, and the straightforward telling of neglected stories.   No-one could accuse the playwright Mark Ravenhill – the author of the iconic 1990’s hit Shopping And F**king – of not believing in the power of fiction.   Yet in the life of the iconic British drag performer Bette Bourne, he has found a story that he thinks deserves to be told more or less as it was first told to him, in a series of conversations in Bette’s living-room in Notting Hill.

The three-part reconstruction of their chat is artful, of course.  There are two chairs on a little square of red carpet, a small table, a music-stand for the script which Ravenhill has written up, to remind Bette of what he said; and then there are the wonderful old  photographs, projected on a screen above their heads.  But a Life In Three Acts is not a fancy show, or even an outstandingly well-delivered one.   Bette just sits there in a sparkly top, and tells it as he remembers it, while Ravenhill gently questions and prompts; and occasionally, magically, he gets up and gives us a little song and dance, in the music hall tradition of his wartime Bethnal Green childhood.

What the show achieves, though, is truly memorable, in that it offers us both a vital history of the emerging movement for gay rights as seen from the streets of London, and – beyond that – a sense of how the personal liberation politics of the 1970’s swept through thousands of lives in that time, offering the possibility of whole new ways of living.  Bette’s subtle account of his childhood and teenage years in the 40’s and 50’s  – full of love and fun, but also of casual beatings and routine concealment – makes a fascinating prelude to the moment when he attended his first gay lib meeting, and felt the scales fall from his eyes.

After that, there’s less drama, but plenty of rich and compassionate reminiscence.  And as Bette approaches 70, it seems important that this fabulous, kindly Cockney fishwife of a man (his own description) should have a chance to tell his story of a half-century that freed a lot of people; but then somehow got lost in a storm of backlash and consumerism, and died young.

Joyce McMillan
Until 30 August
p.206

ENDS ENDS