+3 Review: Paper Hearts the Musical (Underbelly Med Quad: 5-29 Aug: 18.40: 1hr 15mins)

“Potential to be a real best-seller”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

A musical about finding love in a bookshop sounds like pretty much all of my favourite things in one. And just like everyone’s favourite independent bookshop, the first thing that strikes me about Paper Hearts is how little space there is to move around in on stage.  Unfortunately in this case it doesn’t work in the group’s favour, and if they had been used to rehearsing in a larger space, the translation to this venue isn’t effective enough to overcome many of the obstacles faced by that challenge: the choreography looks clumsy, performers squeeze past each other when moving about and the musicians are a bit too dominant visually – it’s a shame that this is the lasting impression I have of this show rather than the artistic merits, of which there are many.

The story follows Atticus Smith (Adam Small) – a book store manager and hapless writer – who is determined to finish his novel, even though his store is very quickly going out of business and is set to be bought by a corporate giant. But of course, there’s a convenient young writers’ competition he could enter and win to save the day. So far, so so. Throw into the mix a difficult relationship with his father and a chance meeting with the consultant set to take over the bookshop and an intriguing plot unfurls.

What I particularly enjoyed about this show in terms of narrative are the clever parallels between Atticus’s own life and the characters in his book, and the relationship he as a writer has with those characters. Even though the book is set in Russia in the 1940s, Atticus channels his situation through his leading character and inadvertently ends up resolving his own problems.

From a performance perspective, bizarrely it’s the Russian scenes that come across as the most genuine and accomplished, and these are the most enjoyable to watch. Much of the rest of the performance, however, feels very rushed. From the opening scene where characters are introduced, to Atticus’s break-up with his girlfriend, meeting someone else, having a huge argument the next day and winning a writing competition, it all seems quite superficial. There are lots of lovely ideas in there, but, much like the stage, everything is a bit too crammed in.

Liam O’Rafferty’s music and lyrics are tight, with several great original songs. Hot is a fun and sassy number with great personality, Shame is a cutting and comedic look at the flaws of the two central characters, and title song Paper Hearts has a real West End ring to it. All songs featured within the Russian scenes have great folk authenticity, so musically this show has a lot going for it.

I’d love to see Paper Hearts come back as a longer, more developed piece, and performed in a different venue that gives it room to breathe. It has the potential to be a real best-seller.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 14 August)


+3 Review: Gobsmacked! (Underbelly George Square,

“These guys should be selling out arenas…the best show I’ve ever seen in Edinburgh.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars:  Outstanding

With their own set and taking the stage in individual black and white outfits to reflect their own personalities, Gobsmacked! look every inch the “cool” a capella group, and their opening number – an energetic rendition of Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now – shows just how much they mean business.

The group’s arrangements – all by former Sons of Pitches star Jack Blume – are quite poppy by nature, allowing each member of the group to have their moment as lead vocalist, with plenty of supporting lines and balance, despite there being just seven members. Throughout the show there are blends and mash-ups aplenty, especially the closing medley, which somehow managed to link over 20 pop songs into one cohesive number, and every arrangement is just as rousing and unique as the last. This is a show that just has quality at every level.

Many a capella choirs these days claim to have slick choreography to accompany their singing, but few I’ve seen have come close to this group’s overall visual presentation with movement, drama and tableau so effortlessly working alongside their singing. In particular, the mash-up between Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy with Adele’s Rolling in the Deep depicts a relationship break-down, jealousy and attempts to move on in a perfect combination between flawless singing and creative staging.

It’s almost impossible for me to pick any standout moments, as the show is all so polished in wow-factor, but award-winning beatboxer Ball-Zee’s solo section midway through the performance left me genuinely gobsmacked for about ten minutes, and in a sea of up tempo numbers I can’t not mention the beautifully stripped back rendition of I Will Wait. If, midway through the show, I was worried that Gobsmacked! might be leaning a bit too much towards the pop-dance genre, this song went a long way to demonstrating the variety and depth of music that this group can more than capably deliver.

I suppose I should attempt to highlight areas of the performance that didn’t work as well, but the only very slight blemishes I noticed were that a couple of the performers seemed a little less flamboyant and stage-aware than their choir-mates (though we can’t all be divas), and it was a shame that some live vocal looping was used in a couple of the songs (though only the really keen observer would notice this). Otherwise, for me this show is as close to perfection as you can get.

After this performance Gobsmacked! are now my absolute favourite a capella group in town – these guys should be selling out arenas. I honestly think this is the best show I’ve ever seen in Edinburgh.



Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 14 August)


+3 Review: Growing Pains (Underbelly, Cowgate: 5-28 Aug: 16.30: 1hr)

“Oozes a quality that is rare and valuable”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

There’s a lovely tradition at the Fringe whereby all companies performing at a certain venue are permitted “standby” tickets to other shows at that venue: once all paying ticket holders have been admitted, any empty seats are then up for grabs – if there are any. For this performance Underbelly companies didn’t just fill the few empty seats: staff were frantically laying out two extra rows at the back to cope with a level of demand I’ve never seen before. Within about 10 seconds of the performance starting, I could understand the hype.

As is so achingly trendy at the moment, Growing Pains is written like a performance poem, with rhyme and rhythm, ridiculously clever wordplay, and a lot of witticism. It’s brutal, honest and unflinching in its portrayal of a young man growing up on an estate in Salford and wanting to make it as an actor. Energy is red raw from the get go and you can tell this is going to be an intense and emotional hour.

Central character Tom introduces his friends, portraying each with clear physicality and accent, and we get to laugh at their banter and endeavours to get served at the local pub while underage. Later on we see those same friends grown-up, stuck in a rut and stifled in small-town mentality that Tom so desperately longs to break away from.

Tom Gill gives absolutely everything in this production – from emotive, heart-wrenching pleas to his dad, amusing turns as his Caribbean neighbour and a posture-perfect well-heeled yuppie, to more puns on London tube stations than you can count and a stripped back and haunting break-up scene with an ex-girlfriend: it really is a one man tour-de-force. For me, it’s 2016’s Johnny Bevan.

Oh, and it’s also a musical. With poetic lyricism that effortlessly floats in and out of song it only seems right to blend the two, and it just works. Not in a corny, musical theatre I’m-just-going-to-burst-into-song kind of way, but in a genuine expression of music being the only way for Tom to be able to communicate what’s going on in his head. It’s funny. moving, and incredibly well performed.

However, it’s not perfect – there are several odd little skips, jumps and glossings over within the narrative that could be made clearer or more cleverly interwoven without the need to go to a blackout – but everything about it oozes a quality that is rare and valuable and definitely worth buying a ticket to. Just ask anyone else doing a show at Underbelly.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 8 August)


TES (Underbelly, George Square : 5 – 31 Aug : 13.15 : 1hr 15 mins)

“Fantastic… exactly what the Fringe is all about.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Tess of the D’urbervilles reimagined in modern times. With a male hero. Set on a Newcastle council estate. Performed by one person. Oh, and it’s performance poetry. What could possibly go wrong?

You’ve got to take your hat off to writer and performer Steve Larkin just for the idea. It sounds daft, but TES is actually a very compelling story, that interprets enough of the original to make it easy to follow, but without going overboard by trying to shoehorn in every last detail. It’s stylish, it’s quirky, and the issues covered are bang up to date for an audience in 2015.

The show follows the story of Joe Taggart, who, we find out, is a descendent of Lord Byron. As part of a special programme in his school (he’s 14 when the show starts), he gets assigned a new English teacher, the alluring Alice Prycer-Fox, who encourages him to write poetry. However, after a dramatic liaison with her, he finds himself in prison and years later is having to rebuild his life as “Terry” in Leeds. We see Terry’s rise in fortune as a performance poet, and how he develops a relationship with a girl he meets at a recruitment agency. Of course, as this is a Hardy adaptation there are more twists and turns, and an unfortunate ending, but it’s a gripping story and deftly delivered.

It’s written with a real sense of rhythm, and its poetic nature (though not overt) gives it a sense of being a fairytale and having a moral tale. Indeed, many cultural quips and comments on consumerist society are well-placed and go to show the level of intelligence and care with which this piece is constructed.

While the writing is powerful, one of the real strengths of this show is Larkin’s energy as a performer, and his ability to jump between characters and create moods and tension very quickly. He excels further in the sections where, as Terry, he performs his original performance poetry, even getting the audience involved to chant along some lines with him. Larkin is in his element in these sections and commands the stage and the audience’s attention.

My only criticism was that it seemed a little rough around the edges – there could have been starker contrasts between some of the characters, while I also would have liked a slightly more impactful climax. Overall though, a fantastic risk-taking offering, and to me this kind of show is exactly what the Fringe is all about.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 15 August)


John Robertson – The Dark Room: Symphony of a Floating Head (Underbelly Cowgate, 6-30 Aug : 20.40 : 1hr)

“Oddly enjoyable”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

I’m a child of the 80s, and I’ll admit I had never heard of cult video game A Dark Room before I went along to this show. However, that didn’t really matter as after 10 odd minutes of adjusting to the madness and theatrical persona of host John Robertson I was able to follow along and feel just as involved as those to whom it was clearly a very important part of their growing up. By the end of the show, I was even able to recite the well-known lines of the script along with everyone else and feel like I had joined some sort of secret club.

The premise is very simple: audience members are invited/chosen to play a multiple choice video game where you select what you want to happen next in the story in order to complete the mission and stay alive. The twist is that you’re in a room full of people watching your every move, with commentary from a man on stage dressed as if he’s from another planet.

That may sound terrifying for some, but it’s all held together by the hugely charismatic Robertson (think Richard O’Brien from The Rocky Horror Picture Show), whose energy and passion for the game set an atmosphere that has fun at its heart. Leave those inhibitions at the door.

Somewhat thankfully, being very green to what was going on, I wasn’t selected as a contestant in the game. However, by a couple of rounds I would have felt able to partake without feeling like a complete prat. While there was a small sense of public humiliation for those taking the wrong path, the more overwhelming sensation was one of support, from both the crowd and Robertson as host. After all, he’s there to entertain and help the audience have fun, not to make people’s lives a misery.

While the characterisation and delivery of the “show” were very amusing, the selection of prizes available for those who attempted the mission gave additional cause for giggles. A semi-inflated seal, a small stone and a second-hand baby’s dummy were a selection of what was on offer during our performance. Sometimes, only completely naff will do, anything else would have seemed incongruent to the overall setup.

I can safely say, in all my years, I’ve never been to a show quite like this one, and I’m very glad I didn’t run for the hills after the first couple of minutes. If a friend invites you along, definitely take them up on it. While for the gaming geeks it may be the best thing they ever experience, for the average punter it’s still an oddly enjoyable hour.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 13 August)