Stiff & Kitsch: By All Accounts Two Normal Girls (C Royale: 14-28th Aug: 16.40: 60mins)

“Two extremely talented comedians who deserve to be playing to full houses”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

There’s something to be said for taking a label someone gives you and owning it, turning it into a badge of honour. It takes guts and good humour. And that’s exactly what Rhiannon Neads and Sally O’Leary display by the bucketload in their latest outing as Stiff & Kitsch in By All Accounts Two Normal Girls – a show so named after a quote from my review of them last year.

The premise of the show is a discussion and self-help guide on how to achieve the level of “normality” the two girls have (according to, erm, me) by taking a comedic look at different aspects of their lives from jobs, to health, wealth and everything in between. Opening quip “things are about to get normal” sets the tone for a witty, honest and accessible hour of fun.

Each section is punctuated with a trademark musical number, which work really well to summarise and highlight their main comments, with choruses including repeated lines as blunt as “Keep your bullshit to yourself” (in reference to seemingly narcissistic social media use by their peers), and “I haven’t a fucking clue”, which we’ve all felt about one thing or another. What pleases most about this duo is their slick back and forth – in both the songs and general banter – the whole performance maintains a beautifully unrehearsed aura, like they’ve put it together especially for you in that moment.

The professionalism and confidence from Stiff and Kitsch have pleasingly stepped up a notch from last year – there is a bit more a swagger and presence within their performance, not un-aided by the life-size cardboard cut-outs of themselves that adorn the back of the stage. Yet with this growth as performers what they haven’t lost is their likeability: the sense that they are still one (or two) of us with the same flaws and insecurities as everyone else. What they do really well is to make each one into something to laugh about, and there are certainly plenty of laughs to be had in this show.

While my main criticism of their show last year is still largely accurate – the variety and creativity within the musical numbers is somewhat lacking – it is the only blemish on an otherwise polished and very funny show. I didn’t stop smiling once throughout the whole hour.

It’s not always easy to admit that you were wrong, but this time I’m glad to: Stiff & Kitsch aren’t two normal girls: they’re two extremely talented comedians who deserve to be playing to full houses. And if they call their next show that, I am retiring.

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 19 August)


Douze (C Royale (studio 4): 2-28 Aug (not 14): 20.30: 60mins)

“Douze delivers by the bucketload”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

The format of Douze is simple enough: a musical group showcasing nine songs for Ireland’s latest Eurovision entry, and the audience has to vote for their favourite at the end. Voting slips will be found on the seats as the audience come in.

To begin, the lights go down and, as they return, the tension builds as the star of the show, Xnthony (Anthony Keiger), with his back to the audience, stands in front of a gold-tinselled backdrop. Xnthony is then revealed from behind an EU-starred cape, sporting statement make-up and a bespangled, very low-cut wrester’s singlet. Supporting him are the Penny Slots (Hannah Fisher and Tiffany Murphy), dressed in royal blue cheerleaders’ outfits, already out of breath and with make-up ready-smeared (emphasising the depiction of their supporting role).  And it only gets more crazy and energetic from there.

Yes, there are nine songs (which do a good job on satirising the various musical styles of Eurovision). Yes, there is a vote. Yes there is the cattiness and viciously competing egos under the showbiz smiles. Yes, there is politics. (You will hear “Yes” quite a lot during the show). All this though are buried under the physical slapstick on stage and the none-too-subtle comedy outrage perpetrated both on-stage and off.  The team make excellent use of the entire theatre space throughout the performance, but beware: sitting at the back may not save you from audience participation, which can verge on the blush-inducing.

As the action becomes increasingly energetic, the lasciviousness of the looks and poses become more apparent. While both women dance vigorously throughout, some of the noises, especially coming from Tiffany, are quite remarkable. One is pretty sure the Penny Slots get their name from their costumes. For sure that would be pre-decimal coinage.

Production levels in this medium-sized (at least for the Fringe) venue is good. Audio quality is high throughout and there is a tremendous use of cheap and cheerful props to great comic effect.  A critic’s duty is to keep watching but honestly, do close your eyes if asked: it really enhances the stage-magic. Thank goodness the venue is well-ventilated, even if only for the sake of the performers.

All three performers should be given full credit for the physical energy they bring to the stage. While the choreography is slapstick and sometimes quite lewd, they are all extremely funny.  Perhaps more vocal lines could have been assigned to the Penny Slots, as both Hannah and Tiffany demonstrate that they really can sing, and though Xnthony’s voice is never totally convincing, it doesn’t matter at all in this context.

A show about a group of Eurovision wannabes is never going to be an erudite and highbrow evening.  It doesn’t even matter whether one likes Eurovision. It’s about fun, laughter and outrage and that is exactly what Douze delivers by the bucketload.

Just be sure to give the pens back. Really, give them back.

                                        Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Martin Veart

C Royale (studio 4)


Penetrator (C Cubed: 3-12 Aug: 18.25: 75mins)

“Flickers of brilliant storytelling”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

Anthony Neilson’s Penetrator covers the topics of masculinity, friendship, and how far a man will go for his mate. Max and Alan are friends and flatmates (with differing viewpoints on tidiness and laziness), when old friend of Max, Tadge, arrives unexpectedly, having been discharged from the army. Bringing a vast set of issues none in the group can comprehend we find out how much each of them is able to put up with.

Bizarrely, for a play that’s been produced at the Traverse, the Finborough and Royal Court (upstairs), it’s Neilson’s script which is really the weak link in this production, giving away frustratingly little about the backgrounds and motivations of each character. Conversation between Max and Alan frequently just dies and restarts again on a different topic for no reason, while any sort of tension and narrative drive appear only quite late on. Perhaps it’s all one over-burdened point by Neilson about men’s ability to communicate about emotion or anything of any depth, but even that wears thin as the chatter ploughs on about girls, haircuts, cards and cups of tea without feeling genuine.

The final fifteen minutes of drama are certainly attention-grabbing and tense, even if the motivation behind it feels rather flimsy with very little to establish it. Tadge’s accounts of the penetrators and his father never quite ring true, as the non-plussed reactions of the others smack of disbelief without enough intelligent dissection of the issues to draw the audience in. I was left wondering what all the fuss was about.

In saying all that, the cast do a fairly good job with the material – Chris Duffy is very relaxed and natural as Max, Matt Roberts suitably frustrated as Alan, and Tom White is the most convincing and compelling of the group as the war-affected Tadge. While the tense moments towards the end the production do get a little bit too shouty, the more emotional and thoughtful interchanges – particularly when recalling teenage incidents – are very well-delivered and stand head and shoulders above the rest in terms of emotional honesty as flickers of brilliant storytelling.

Given the amount of talent on display at moments during this performance, it’s clear that Fear No Colours as a company have the potential to produce great theatre, but unfortunately this production falls short in too many areas to show them in their best light.

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 6 August)


+3 Review: Care Takers (C, 3-29 Aug: 18.35: 55 mins)

“Astonishingly powerful”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

They say good things come in threes. To me, good theatre must have three essential ingredients: good concept, good script, good actors. Many shows have one or two of these, but this show has all three – and then some – making it very good indeed.

Care Takers analyses a simple conflict between a secondary school teacher who suspects one of her pupils is being bullied and the Deputy Head who will do nothing about it unless there is hard evidence. The tension is palpable, but a complex relationship between the pair unravels during four private meetings on the subject over a period of several weeks. What makes this show so engaging is the balance of how both sides of the story are played out – I found myself agreeing with both perspectives on more than one occasion, and power shifts from one to the other throughout to keep suspense all the way through.

From the opening phone calls she takes in her office, it’s immediately obvious that Deputy Head Mrs Rutter (Penelope McDonald) is busy: juggling budgets, workloads, staff, curriculum, and of course, her own career. She has experience and authority, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Cue the entry of Ms Lawson (Emma Romy-Jones) a newly qualified teacher: great at her job and genuinely concerned about the children in her care. The conflict that follows goes beyond what is best for an individual child, scraping away at personal prejudices, and questioning the very nature of what is best, and for whom.

McDonald and Romy-Jones both deserve awards for this performance, portraying characters so real that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a play. McDonald is infuriatingly powerful and charismatic as Mrs Rutter, giving the most compelling acting performance I’ve seen at the Fringe so far this year, while Romy-Jones creates a perfect balance as underdog Ms Lawson, with a more subtle approach to her character.

The acting is superb, but the script is also first class – seamlessly and succinctly giving the titbits of information needed to develop the story and create a situation that makes you want to jump on stage and sort it yourself. The dialogue is very natural, with each interaction sounding like a genuine conversation that tries hard to keep professional though personal tensions clearly want to take it elsewhere. Narrative development is a bit on the slow side, though I wouldn’t sacrifice this for the amount of depth we get to see from each character.

When things turn more dramatic towards the end of the play, the question arises – who’s to blame? Did the individuals involved really do all they could? It’s the kind of production where everyone will have an opinion that makes for a very lively discussion in the bar afterwards – and that’s exactly what makes this a five star show.

It’s a tense and gripping piece of theatre, which, although occasionally verges on being a little bit samey, has the potential (moreso than many of the shows I’ve seen this year) to make a big impact in the commercial market. I’d love to see it picked up by the Traverse or another producing theatre to take it further and watch it soar. With a few small tweaks it really could be very special indeed.

Care Takers is astonishingly powerful – a must-see for anyone working in secondary education or with responsibility for children of that age.

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 17 August)


+3 Review: Triple Entendre: Love, Life and Other Stuff (C Nova: until 29 Aug: 21.50: 50 mins)

“Clever, stylish and hilariously performed”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Three microphones, three young women, a lot of songs and a lot of sass. Triple Entendre don’t mess about. Taking to the stage in coordinating black outfits and bursting into an a capella fifties style song, everything about their presence at the beginning of this performance shows they mean business.

Given the subject matter of the first few numbers (and interludes) I was worried that it would be a purely “girl power” all-we-can-talk-about-is-men-and-sex kind of show. Thankfully the group soon move on to show they do have more depth and gumption about them than the Spice Girls, with catchy songs including Resting Bitch Face and my personal favourite Can’t Scat, about the jazz singer who couldn’t scat – clever, stylish and hilariously performed.

While the show is mostly singing (there’s precious little chat in between numbers), a few poems are interspersed which do show great creativity and add variety to the piece. My favourite of these was Anger – a short but fast-paced tirade that we all wish we had the guts to spit at someone who’s screwed us over at some point. I must also mention the touching song Mind the Gap, which, as well as cramming a lot of London Underground wordplay (to my great amusement) into a few short verses, also showed a glimmer of fragility in comparison with the quite up tempo and feisty feel of what had gone before.

Throughout the piece the singing and musicality of the performers is excellent – note-perfect with great range and adaptability to suit different styles. And while it’s clear that the trio have a close bond and easy way of working with each other, we don’t get to learn much about their individual personalities – for a cabaret show it seems quite guarded. There’s not a lot of openness or up close and personal moments between numbers so it all seems to go quite quickly and I was left feeling slightly cheated by not having gotten to know the girls better by the end.

Overall there’s some great original content in there and the singing is spot on, but I feel the group need to work a bit harder to define their identity and open up a bit more.

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 15 August)


+3 Review: [title of show] (C Cubed: 4-29 Aug: 21.20: 1hr 30mins)

“The company’s voices blend beautifully to create some lovely moments”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

I always get excited when a new and ambitious theatre company decides to put its own spin on a show that only received limited success its first time around, in order to try and find that winning formula. In this case, Cobbles and Rhyme attempt to give a very minimalist makeover to [title of show], which, though enjoyable, unfortunately ends up languishing in musical theatre mediocrity.

[title of show] is by nature the anti-musical – intentionally flying in the face of the fourth wall and big production values, using just a keyboard, a bare stage, four actors and and four chairs. This makes it perfect for translating to Fringe venues, and with some clever staging Cobbles and Rhyme effectively create sympathetic intimacy and a stripped back feel that really suits the show’s themes.

However, beyond this it is a shame to see that some of the basic flaws in the musical itself were not addressed, making it at times painfully obvious exactly why the show wasn’t a huge hit on Broadway. Granted, this is probably more down to terms within the performance rights than the company’s ability, but I can only critique based on what I see.

It takes the best part of 25 minutes and six songs to get past the “Let’s write a musical/I don’t know what to write” stage, and throughout the first half of the performance I felt like I learned next to nothing about the personalities of each character. It is only towards the end in Awkward Photo Shoot when tensions start to emerge and priorities conflict that we really discover their mettle, and it’s a shame this occurs so late. This is a show that just needs to get to the meat faster and stop being quite so self-indulgent and self-important.

Musically, it’s ok – there aren’t really any standout numbers, though closing tune Nine People’s Favorite Thing is quite hummable as you exit the auditorium. Complex harmonies are well delivered throughout and the company’s voices blend beautifully to create some lovely moments. The cast certainly give it their all, even though for me it’s the supporting characters of Heidi (Heidi Parsons) and Susan (Charlie Walker) who outshine their male counterparts with stunning vocals and gripping stage presence.

Overall it’s nice, it’s funny and it’s well sung, but I think it lacks that killer punch to have a really big impact at the Fringe.

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 10 August)


+3 Review: Life According to Saki (C: 3-29 Aug: 14.15: 1hr 10mins)

“As good as Fringe theatre gets… a triumph”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

It’s always telling when I leave a performance I’ve been reviewing with an almost empty page of notes. It doesn’t happen often, but in this case I was so engrossed that I simply forgot to write much down.

Set in the trenches in WW1, Saki writes to his dear Ethel at home, recounting stories to kill time. His fellow soldiers become the characters in each story and the piece flows seamlessly from one to the next like waves crashing against the shore.

Written by children’s author Katherine Rundell, the script maintains a playful and slightly mischievous feel throughout, expertly capturing the style and tone that Saki’s short stories are known and loved for. For those unfamiliar with his work, think Roald Dahl, but a bit more grown up. Among others there are tales of a man who becomes a living work of art, a couple who can’t get married due to already having 13 children between them, a politician forced to share a room with a pig and a chicken, and a small boy who believes his ferret has god-like qualities. It’s all good clean fun, but with a moral lesson behind each one. Oh and they are funny. Very funny.

The cast keep the piece moving at a fair pace, whipping out props and costumes seemingly from nowhere ready to set the scene the moment it is introduced. Their dexterity is something to be marvelled at, and Jessica Lazar’s direction makes the most of every look, tableau and minor character for maximum impact. It’s a show that pays great attention to detail, which I very much admire.

While the ensemble cast is fantastic, playing a multitude of characters of differing genders, ages and nationalities to comic perfection, it’s David Paisley (playing Saki himself) who stands out at as the star performer. Gentle, engaging and with great emotional sensitivity it’s almost impossible not to fall in love with him.

Yes, the props and set are quite basic and the narrative is little more than Saki recounting stories while killing time in the trenches, but the soul and spirit of this piece are really what makes it. And when I really think about it (which in this case I did, long and hard), in my humble opinion this is about as good as Fringe theatre gets. Simply, a triumph.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 7 August)


+3 Review: Adele is Younger Than Us (C Nova: 4-29 Aug: 14.30: 1hr)

“A real gem of a show”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

I can’t believe it’s already that time of year again where I dust off my quill for Fringe season. Time seems to be moving incredibly fast and before the madness of the month commences I find myself taking stock of just how far I’ve come since my first Fringe experience 10 years ago. It’s somewhat fitting then that my first review of the year is for Adele is Younger Than Us – a frank and funny assessment of one’s life’s achievements in comparison to those of a global superstar. And while, in so doing, it would be easy to wallow, have existential crises or bury one’s head in the sand, Sally O’Leary and Rhiannon Neads take a light-hearted musical look back at their journey to (almost) thirty.

Opening number “How do you write a love song?” isn’t the most original of subjects, and early on I was worried that this show would end up being one big cliché of every “unlucky in love” story ever told. But there’s more than enough personality and punch in the song to maintain interest, and a likeability and professionalism about the partnership that command respect.

Indeed, likeability and laughability are perhaps the words I would use most emphatically in describing the qualities of this show. The script is full of witticisms and puns (my particular favourite: describing the notion of being romantically unavailable as “Taken – like the daughter of Liam Neeson”), while the delivery and comic timing from both performers left me giggling on numerous occasions.

The framing and structure of the show, using Adele’s life and works to compare their own lives to works really well, and helps bring a sense of originality to proceedings. It allows the O’Leary and Neads – by all accounts two normal girls – to trace their own lives in comparison with Adele’s, giving the audience the chance to join them on their journey through adolescence into adulthood. It’s personal and revealing, but also reassuring that actually, we’re all in the same boat.

While there is some variation in mood and genre of the musical numbers, I would have liked to have seen a bit more risk taken creatively here. The attempted rap was a nice try but perhaps a little undercooked, or just a pastiche of itself – I’m not sure.

Overall, it’s a slick, polished and accomplished performance delivered with verve. A real surprising gem of a show.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 4 August)


The Bakewell Bake Off: A New Musical (C, 5 – 22 Aug : 17.00 : 1hr 10 mins)

“A sweet, easy-to-watch crowd pleaser”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

It was only a matter of time before a GBBO-themed show made it to the Fringe, and this one has all the necessary ingredients for a sweet, easy-to-watch crowd pleaser.

The plot is exactly what you would expect – an eclectic group of wannabe bakers pit their culinary skills against each other to please three ultra-competitive judges and be crowned Bakewell’s best baker. There are some interesting characters and relationships, including a cross-dresser, a nun, a woman obsessed with Christmas, an Asian doctor (who becomes the subject of some racist abuse), and it’s all hosted by the very talkative yet incredibly likeable hostess called Victoria Sponge.

The script is full of wonderful baking-related puns: from characters whose names include, Tina Tartan and Henrietta Apfelstrudel, to a nun’s “Desecrated Coconut” cake, which tickled me the most. Indeed the writing is clever throughout the piece with lots of quips and wordplay to keep the audience amused, even if the narrative itself is pretty thin.

For me Sophie Forster as catty judge Griselda Pratt-Dewhurst delivered the best comic performance with an array of scathing put downs, while rival judge Hugh Dripp, played George Rexstrew, commanded the stage with great presence and energy.

Overall the singing was good, but at its best in the choral numbers. One can’t be too critical of sound levels of a student production in the Fringe space – the soloists did as best they could and with a full band and microphones I am sure they would have dazzled. This was most evident in gospel number Bake Your Way to Heaven, where I was longing for Imogen Coutts’s vocals to soar above the rousing backing singers. Alas, a commendable effort.

The choreography was perhaps more impressive, with a great range of routines for the varied musical numbers, all delivered deftly and with great energy. My favourite was the tango to the cleverly named “The Original Bakewell Tart”, which was performed with great finesse.

At an hour and 10 minutes this show is a decent length, although I feel that one or two of the characters could have been sacrificed to allow us to get to know the others better and build up more tension between them. There was a lovely moment towards the end between Freddie Twist (Charlie Keable) and Susie Sunflower (Ros Bell), who formed a very believable romance throughout the competition, and more layers like this would help turn this show from being good into really great.

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 16 August)

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The Oxford Gargoyles (C : 5-15 August : 13.00 : 50 mins)

“A flawless vocal performance”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

It seems somewhat incredulous that I last saw the Oxford Gargoyles at the Fringe nine years ago. And I guess what’s most pleasing is the evolution in style since then – from what was previously a supremely talented but somewhat serious choir, to a much more risky and fun-loving bunch, with the same level of musical talent.

After a slightly bizarre introduction, the show opened with gospel number from Disney’s Hercules: That’s the Gospel Truth, which although impressive, perhaps had a slightly too complex arrangement that to the average punter would probably have sounded quite chaotic. Indeed, this was a theme that, being harsh, was true throughout their 50-minute set: amazing vocal talent that was sometimes lost behind some very complex arrangements.

What I imagine the group would hail as their “money song” was the most bizarre mash-up that I have ever heard including (among others): Stanford’s Evening Canticles in C, G and B flat; Stevie Wonder’s Signed, Sealed Delivered; Bach’s Magnificat; and even some 90s rock thrown in for good measure. Again, vocally very impressive, and I’m sure music geeks will go nuts for it, but for the layman it is quite difficult to enjoy properly with so much going on.

In saying that, this is a vocal group that absolutely knows is niche in the a capella market, and their songs were in the most part performed in their very individual style. A beautiful, soulful rendition of Let It Be, and a much simpler mash-up of jazz classics including Beyond the Sea were very distinctive to the Gargoyle’s sound. The haunting and simple Blame it on my Youth was perhaps my favourite of the evening though, going to show that they’ve still got all their old tricks, as well as having learnt some new.

The show closed with a song that I never thought I would hear from an acapella, especially a jazz acapella: Shania Twain’s Man, I feel Like a Woman. This number perhaps most evidently summed up the gutsiness this group now has, incorporating humour, original arrangement and a flawless vocal performance. It was delivered with real panache and was a great way to close the show.

For me it’s great to see so much freshness and originality alive and well in university a capella groups, and I hope the Oxford Gargoyles keep up their good work.



Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 9 August)