"why don't you go fuck a play" Boy George, by Twitter 18.7.2012

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Mad as a Hatter

The Carroll Myth
Venue: Sweet Grassmarket
Where: Edinburgh
Date Reviewed: 20 August 2011
WOS Rating: 5 stars

There can scarcely be anyone whose childhood was untouched by Alice in Wonderland, the beloved and enduring Victorian creation of mathematician Charles Dodgson under his pen-name Lewis Carroll and modelled in part on the inquisitive mind of the daughter of his college Dean, Henry Liddell.

Academics and psychologists have mined the text and contemporary diaries for rival theories about Carroll’s fixation with Alice, and analysed his own mind conflicted between his career as a logician and vivid imaginings of the storybook characters with which he entertained her.

Superbly realised in Nathan Shreeve’s original and dynamic script, the gentle Dodgson is besieged by the characters from the story. How they overlap with the personalities in his real life and unravel his mind is entirely plausible in Joshua Ogle’s meticulously graduated performance: Alice’s overbearing mother becomes the Red Queen, a pair of quarrelsome gardeners in the Liddell household inform Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

The sinister atmospherics of the production are brilliantly nuanced through original music and the sinuous linkages of the Cheshire Cat, played by an enthralling trio of physical actors. Fine characterisations too in the performances of Charlie Rendell as Liddell and the realistically mad Hatter, and a gorgeously creepy and coquettish Sarah-Miles-in-the-making Alice from Eleri Jones, the very embodiment of ‘Contrariwise’.

- Johnny Fox

The Granny Awards

ED FRINGE 2011: Alzheimer’s The Musical : A Night to Remember
Gilded Ballroom Teviot
Written by : Maureen Sherlock

Reviewer: Johnny Fox

The Public Reviews Rating: 3.5 stars

What did I go and see yesterday? Is this Glasgow? Are you my sister? Have I had my pills?

Perhaps Alzheimer’s is setting in already because I know from the damp patch in my pants I laughed a lot yesterday afternoon, but can’t fully recall what at.

Three Australian actresses portray elderly ladies in the ‘Jurassic Park’ retirement home in Melbourne. The slight joke gives a clue to what’s to come: lots of obvious gags about incontinence, failing eyesight, forgotten sex, deafness and hip replacements … and it’s true some of the jokes are as whiskered as the residents and the dialogue needs the over-repeated “dear” plucking from it like white hairs on the old girls’ chins, but an almost sell-out crowd rocked with laughter.

Sharpened up with a bit more topicality, this could become a regular Fringe favourite.

There are some hilarious moments, the best of which is the sex education balloon routine. A sketch about grandma giving her granddaughter a Mickey Mouse watch is both funny and touching, but the best gag of the afternoon comes in the ballroom dancing class and you’ll certainly remember that.

Off Broadway. Way Off.

Broadway Swings
Venue: Pleasance Courtyard
Where: Edinburgh
Date Reviewed: 19 August 2011
WOS Rating: 2 stars

Interviewed for Edinburgh-Festivals.com, former Fest director Paul Gudgin trails his big band show by identifying his favourite number as "a fantastic version of 'Don't Rain On My Parade' from Sweet Charity".

That he didn’t appear to know it comes from Funny Girl seemed exemplary of the many cock-ups in this thrown-together one-night stand.

The A4-photocopied “Razz Big Band” labels stuck onto the music stands suggests a random assemblage of session musos most of whom peer closely at the dots throughout rather than relaxing into confident jazz improvisations. And there were some cataclysmic mistakes, particularly among the brass section whose multiple casualties littered the car-crash near the end of a West Side Story medley.

The chorus of what looked like local amateurs was under-rehearsed and tragically choreographed, although several of them sang extremely well in the Hairspray finale.

The unannounced soloists varied from a confident and polished delivery of “Mack the Knife” to two musically excellent divas, one tall and blonde and one Bassey statuesque who sang brilliantly but might just take a closer look at the lyrics, which caused some mistiming issues in Roxie’s big number from Chicago and, unforgiveably, "Over the Rainbow".

- Johnny Fox

Sweat, Sweat, Sweating on Heaven's Door

ED FRINGE 2011: Liberace: Live in Heaven
Assembly George Square

Written and directed by: Julian Woolford
Musical Director: Allan Rogers
Lighting Design: Martin Nicholas

The Public Reviews Rating: 4.0 Stars

Reviewer: Johnny Fox

This is a clever construct: at the pearly gates, the “world’s highest paid entertainer” meets his inquisitors in St Peter (voiced by Stephen Fry) and God (Victoria Wood – “I made the world in six days and on the seventh I baked a fruit cake”) before an audience of angels decides his ultimate destination.

Smartly realised in Julian Woolford’s well-researched script, the casting of seventies’ talent show pianist Bobby Crush is a stroke of genius. ‘Stroke’ may be uncomfortably close to the truth: Crush looks terrific as Liberace, having morphed from sweet-faced Opportunity Knocks winner to convincingly sweating grotesque, but you might worry for his own cholesterol count.

His acting, though, has only two settings: accurately gargling his vowels to ape Lee’s camp delivery, and ‘serious’ which he deploys for the reflective passages about childhood and sexual confessions,. The wig and makeup transform him perfectly into the character, but when he copies Liberace’s trademark smile, his eyes disappear and some engagement with the audience is lost.

His competence at the keyboard is unrivalled, and the way in which he adopts Liberace’s style of playing is entirely authentic. However, the anachronistic references to Amy Winehouse and Michael Jackson don’t really work and the excessive reverb on the sound desk and the imbalance between piano and backing track need to be urgently addressed.

'Shooting' Stars

Pretty Little Panic
Venue: Pleasance Dome
Where: Edinburgh
Date Reviewed: 20 August 2011
WOS Rating: 5 Stars

The only reason I acceded to my headmaster’s arm-twisting to attempt the Cambridge entrance exam was that I might have stood a chance of getting into the Footlights. Over its many years, the Footlights have developed a well-earned rep as a crucible of original and brilliant comedic talent from Monty Python via Fry and Laurie to The Inbetweeners - and now most latterly incarnated in the class of 2011’s Edinburgh offering Pretty Little Panic.

The barrel-vaulted auditorium and black set offer no clues to the content. Four guys in white shirts and black jeans with big shoes to fill. No pressure, then.

The genius of Pretty Little Panic is the way in which the last line of a sketch sparks the first of the next, and the pace never drops. This would be individous if all you remembered was the technique, but Chain Gang, Liberal Parents, and the Truth Spoon sketches ensure you’ll carry away much more from this tight and almost impeccably performed show.

It’s always fun to guess which of a Footlights cast could have a stage career beyond Uni: Adam Lawrence’s rubber-legged physicality might make him a good cover for Lee Evans, but it’s Ben Ashenden who stands out with potential for a combined stand-up, acting and car insurance career in the mould of Chris Addison.

There’s a long tradition of Edinburgh Fringe reviewers spunking stars up the wall in order to be bylined on the posters – but what the hell, this is so far beyond four that as long as you spell my name right, it’s a definite five.

- Johnny Fox

Swann Upmanship

ED FRINGE 2011: Flanders and Swann – Pleasance Courtyard
Reviewer: Johnny Fox

The Public Reviews Rating: 4.5 stars

Michael Flanders and Donald Swann were songwriters and cabaret artistes who debuted in the 1950s and attracted the same kind of polite following as Joyce Grenfell for whom they also wrote some material.

As a sort of Kit and the Widow of the post-war parlour song, their pairing is almost perfect: Tim FitzHigham is a patrician cross between Richard Stilgoe and Boris Johnson and expertly mimics Flanders’ booming baritone, and Duncan Walsh-Atkins neatly pins Swann’s diffidence masking exceptional brilliance on the keyboard.

I wrote in my notes that this was a “60+” audience, meaning that numerically they nearly filled the seats, but it’s pretty much a demographic too.

Joyce Grenfell once wrote that her wartime audiences loved nothing more than to sing ‘old songs together, very slowly’ and when FitzHigham embarks on the bestiary of animal numbers including “The Elephant” “The Hippopotamus” and “I’m A Gnu” the audience joins in and the whiff of the twilight home is palpable.

His vocal energy is uncontainable, he punctuates many songs by leaping into the air at the start of the chorus but the uniqueness of Flanders and Swann was that they were both chair-bound: Swann behind his keyboard and Flanders with polio. I don’t think the show would be diminished if he tried the act in a wheelchair.

The highpoint of their continually delightful absurdity is when FitzHigham strips the tubular steel music stand of its cover, inserts hosepipe and funnel and plays the Rondo from Mozart’s Horn Concerto No 4 in E-flat Major during which he turns an acute shade of puce not often seen outside a Zandra Rhodes wallpaper book. Inspired.

No 'bang', flaccid 'kok'

Lady Boys of Bangkok: Fur Coats and French Knickers Tour
Meadows Theatre Big Top

Producer: Carol Gandey
Director: Phillip Gandey

Reviewer: Johnny Fox

The Public Reviews Rating: 1.5 stars

The noble tradition of the transsexual ‘katoey’ features in Thai culture, art and literature and stretches back centuries.

The parading of transexuals in a circus tent is an exploitative Western phenomenon in the ‘freak show’ tradition and stretches credulity that it persists in the 21st century.

It seems almost inappropriate to include Lady Boys of Bangkok among in the Edinburgh Festival reviews because its audience seemed so different from other EdFest and Fringe: party tables of women on an office outing, a kind of sub-hen night midweek jolly fuelled by blush Zinfandel and a chance to sing along to familiar chav anthems like Shania Twain’s “Feel Like A Woman” or “Y.M.C.A.” here bizarrely mimed by a four-man tribute to the six-man Village People.

The costumes are colourful although not very revealing, and with the help of hormones the dancers have hairless bodies and convincing breasts but the music’s all cover versions of pop hits and the lip-synching is downright appalling.

The performers look glazed and mechanical as you might expect on a 72 gig tour which drags them from Dundee to Truro between August and November and their choreography is as basic and dated as a BBC Seaside Special from 1985.

There is comedy but reduced to the crudest level of mime that could be perceived by partially sighted non-English-speaking customers a hundred feet back in the audience. And featuring a dwarf as a butt of the jokes.

It’s also Edinburgh’s most aggressively security-screened venue, with all bags searched for contraband including soft drinks. This seems less for safety than to ensure you purchase only their own high-priced offerings within the tent.

Commercial. Tacky. Trite. Not very Edinburgh at all.

Reich on Target

Hitler! The Musical
Venue: Gryphon Venues at the Point Hotel
Where: Edinburgh
Date Reviewed: 18 August 2011
WOS Rating: 5 stars

This is the show which might as easily have been titled Fringetime for Hitler: if only Max Biyalistock had thought to do it with an all-female cast.

Apart from one guy who actually plays Hitler’s mum, it’s an all-girl band who deliver this ‘gay romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden’ and suggest his conquest of Europe was a secondary career choice after failing to get into art school.

The songs raid every musical theatre genre including the obligatory-in-Edinburgh-student-show rap, but it’s all done to such a high standard that the fact that the parodies are driven home with the firmness of the inflatable hammer that constantly whacks the Jewish girl in the show’s best running gag, is as happily disregarded by the audience as any pretence at political correctness.

The singing’s great and the movement as sharply coordinated as you’d expect from Trinity Laban students, and the Third Reich rises and falls in a wildly anachronistic and irreverent hour.

It’s a four star show, but I’m adding a special sew-on yellow one for Rachel the token Jew who carries the joke right through to the last line.

- Johnny Fox

No Music? Tell Me It's Not True ...

Blood Brothers
Venue: C venues - C too
Where: Edinburgh
Date Reviewed: 16 August 2011
WOS Rating: 4 Stars

Because the musical’s been a fixture in the West End for over 25 years, initially starring Barbara Dickson but subsequently sheltering any number of pop retirees including Spice Girl Mel C, most of the Nolan Sisters and X-Factor’s Niki Evans, it’s interesting to remember that Blood Brothers started life as a school play written by Willy Russell for Fazakerley Comprehensive in 1981.

Stripped of its music, you might wonder what’s left and how the pathos of a pair of separated twins who later meet as friends across a Liverpudlian class divide will play out unsupported by the anthemic score.

Surprisingly well, in the Lincoln student production.

The central character of cleaner Mrs Johnstone and her boss Mrs Lyons, although well-acted, become secondary to the development of their sons whose performances are totally convincing, particularly the gradual transition of ‘posh’ Edward from awkward schoolboy to uncomprehending businessman. It’s a characterisation rich in detail and both he and the ‘street’ brother Mickey strive successfully to keep Russell’s crude polemical view of class difference within the bounds of realism.

The streets of Liverpool are well-realised through simple props like dustbins, ladders and an old door, and the background is provided by a trio of wryly watchful urchins whose attentive expressions and subtle childlike reactions are a model for all ensemble actors.

Cast lists were unavailable but high praise also for the actress playing Linda, the best-friend/girlfriend who inherits the lonely burden of disenfranchised motherhood on a tough estate.

- Johnny Fox

Watered Down Oxford Blues

ED FRINGE 2011: Out of the Blue – Pleasance Courtyard
Musical Director: Alexei Kalveks

Reviewer: Johnny Fox

The Public Reviews Rating: 4.0 stars

Has appearance on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ gone to their heads? Have the self-styled ‘Kings of this genre’ lost their crown?

Oxford University’s Out of the Blue have been an Edinburgh fixture since 2005 and their a capella stylings of everything from 80s synthpop to Lady Gaga a solid “must-see” demanding ever larger venues.

There’s no doubt they have a following: drawing one of Edinburgh’s most varied audiences from pensioners to teens and a surprisingly large contingent of overseas visitors. Annoyingly there’s an equally large contingent of teenage girls filming the show on their mobiles and this, and the constant hiss of the air-conditioning in the Pleasance venue make it harder to be totally engaged with this year’s show.

There are other changes: the turnover this year has been particularly high and 11 of the guys are new to the 15-man troupe: they still perform in smart suits, shirts and socks but the energetic choreography seems more random and less strictly patterned than in previous years. Most significantly, they’ve abandoned microphones in favour of an all-acoustic set which makes for balancing difficulties especially in the quieter pieces, and in a direct comparison with 2010 the diction of the Human League’s ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby’ was noticeably muddier.

Nonetheless, the audience roared its approval for a rich mix of sounds from Jason DerĂ¼lo’s punchy ‘In My Head’ to a beautifully contrasted pairing of ‘Uptown Girl’ and ‘Always a Woman to Me’ highlighting OOTB’s exceptional affinity with the Long Island sound of Billy Joel.

A crowd-pleasing show, for sure, but a crowd that came not just ready to be pleased but lying on its back with its legs in the air and waiting to be tickled.

Shite Charity

Sweet Charity by 'Northern Theatre Company' (actually a random amateur bunch from Hull)
Venue: C venues - C
Where: Edinburgh
Date Reviewed: 15 August 2011
WOS Rating: 1 star (but only because 0 stars isn't permissible)

The idea that the Neil Simon-scripted 60's musical and Shirley MacLaine vehicle in which taxi dancer Charity Hope Valentine’s cheerful optimism survives all misfortunes should be transposed to a gay bar and bath-house on the Lower East Side is intriguing.

Realistically, that’s the only good thing about this show.

The opening “Big Spender” is set in a convincingly dirty urinal and features drag queens changing into leather for a fetish night, but it’s quickly apparent that these performers don’t have a singing or acting bone in their bodies and what’s left is an embarrassing hour during which the audience is largely agape at the awfulness of the entire project.

Cast and credits were unavailable, but the standard is universally dire, none more so than Charity’s dashing film-star Latin lover, played here as a lardy clod whose hair overhangs his expressionless face, or his two best friends who collectively crucify “Dream Your Dream” at least twice during the evening.

The cast are not helped by the staging (the urinals remain in view throughout), the accompaniment wherein Cy Coleman‘s glorious tunes are played inaccurately and without regard to variation of tempo or dynamics on a wheezingly emphysemic synthesizer, or by choreography so predictably conceived and inexpertly performed you have to watch it through your fingers.

There is nudity and simulated sex but tastelessly inappropriate and flabbily acted such that they lend new meaning to the American phrase ‘bad ass’.

Titipu Big Band

The Hot Mikado
reviewed for www.whatsonstage.com
4 stars

Few things are more indestructible than Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. It’s been set in so many different times and places that Jonathan Miller’s flapperish twenties’ mash-up for ENO is seen as as much of a ‘classic’ as the original.

The 1986 score of The Hot Mikado in which G&S got souped up by Rob Bowman pitched it into the big band era, and a broad range of jazz and blues stylings although this production focuses on swing and a neatly Americanised setting.

It’s a vigorous, pacy and cleverly compacted production: colourful, witty, full of boisterous choreography smartly integrated into the overall direction by Maddy Mutch. The five-piece band is simply outstanding, and driven by a first-rate MD in Chris Guard. Only trouble is that they’re so good that the excellent voices in the cast can’t always be heard over the music, and the show would be more nearly perfect if the principals were miked.

This is particularly unfortunate because the best voices really are worth hearing: Sarah Hollinshead’s wonderful angry contralto so perfectly frames Katisha, and the sharp and soaring tones of Adele Pope contrast beautifully with her chavvy characterization of Pitti-Sing who thereby overshadows Hannah Howie’s rather toughened Yum-Yum.

Among the men, Douglas Gibbs is a superb anchorman as 'Lord High Everything Else' Pooh-Ba, Alex Wingfield may be the first ever Nanki-Poo to successfully rock a Primark wifebeater vest and fatigues, and Charlie Warner’s Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko is a masterly combination of Gilbertian comedy and Gok Wan.