‘Winston and David’ (Underbelly Dairy Room, until AUG 29)

“What Nick has done is to add wings to Robert’s racing horse. What they’ve got is a Pegasus and it’s a joy to watch their creation take flight.”

Editorial Rating: 4 (Outstanding)

Their friendship was as unlikely as their climbs were steep. One was the obscure son of Welsh nonconformity. The other was a scion of one of Great Britain’s most prominent aristocratic families. The first trained as a solicitor. The second readied himself for war. By the time they met, each had carved out a place in the unfolding drama of national life. They were each looking forward into a bright future in the public spotlight. At home, their combined talents would bring forth harvest after harvest of reforms in the grand old liberal tradition. Overseas they would make war and they would make peace. Kings, sultans, emperors, and presidents would look to these two titans for counsel and comradeship. Their names will live as long as the civilization which they preserved. But this play, despite the title, is not all about Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George.

She was Lloyd George’s typist and had been the close friend of the eldest daughter he mourned. She became his lover, confident, and friend. She would see him at his greatest and at his shabbiest – up close and very personal. From her unique vantage spot in his-story, Frances Stevenson could intimately chronicle the defining events of the early 20th century.

The play was adapted by Lloyd George’s great-great grandson, Robert, from his own 2005 book of the same title. What Robert produced was a thoroughbred script capturing the power of his subjects’ political horseflesh with an attention to detail and accuracy that would do credit to George Stubbs at the height of his powers. But EdFringe is turf like no other. The field is crowded. The going tough. It takes a certain something to get a script, especially one so rooted in verisimilitude, out of the starting gates. Just as Lloyd George and Churchill complimented and compensated for each others’ faults and faculties, Robert and Nick Hennegan, the show’s director, have found a perfect balance between essential drama and necessary detail. What Nick has done is to add wings to Robert’s racing horse. What they’ve got is a Pegasus and it’s a joy to watch their creation take flight.

As Frances Stevenson, and several other characters, Alexandra Donnachie is wondrous. She’s smart, sexy, kind, and confident. Her scenes of heartache are deeply touching. Few actors could manage to hold their ground between two such larger than life personalities, Donnachie not only holds, she takes centre stage and gives back as good as she gets. Peter Swales is a very believable Churchill. The scene on the golf links is a masterclass in just enough. As DLG Geraint Rhys has a choice to make and now would be a good time to make it. Was his character a sincere and driven man of vision, or a grubby chancer with an outsized appetite for sex à la Bill Clinton? Or was he both? Rhys tiptoes around the question. I’d like to see him dive in.

The staging is an understated star. Nick Hennegan, a thirty-year EdFringe veteran, has brought his A Game to the properties, lighting, and sound design. This is Fringe theatre at its absolute best. It’s what the Festival is ultimately for. A new production finding its feet starting with a walk, stretching to a trot, working up to a canter, and (maybe, just maybe) crossing the finish line at a full gallop. Only it won’t be a gallop because this production is a Pegasus.


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‘Rent’ (Churchill Theatre: 10 – 14 February ’15)

“Meenan is on interstellar form. His lightning fast, fluid movements suggest he’d be the one to back in a 2-on-1 prize fight against Jackie Chan and Dame Edna.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Nae Bad

“Dove sono le Puccini?” The gondolier looked up excitedly, “le puttane?!” “Err… no mate. Le Puccini? Opera a palazzo.” The Venetian working-man seemed disappointed. “Non è così buono,” he muttered sadly as we glided off towards an intimate encounter with La bohème.

Italian Giacomo Puccini adapted the narrative from Frenchman Henri Murger’s vignettes about Paris’ bohemian denizens. A century after La bohème’s 1896 premiere in Turin, American Jonathan Larson’s rock musical reimagining opened on New York’s Broadway. From there Rent emerged for one of the longest, most commercially successful, runs in musical history. Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème have thus been around the block so many times, the Gondolier’s puttane might have seemed positively virginal by comparison.

It’s Christmas Eve in the East Village. It’s a time before hipsters. A filmmaker and a rock musician – two noble artists, both alike in poverty – are told by their ex-roommate, now their current landlord, that they must pay the back rent owed. Solemnly they refuse. Joe Christie (as filmmaker Mark) and Nitai Levi (as rock musician Roger) establish strong leads, demonstrating possession of the several narrative arcs, the prism through which Larson’s sketchy urban landscape emerges. Jonathan Ip as landlord Benny demonstrates a determined gravity that centres the action.

Rent’s cast of bohemian characters provide fertile ground for a company well-suited to clever character studies. As Tom Collins – the maverik, homosexual college professor – Benjamin Aluwihare stands out as one of those student performers you hope will graduate into the major league. It’s all the more impressive because he is sharing the stage, romance and tragedy with Scott Meenan (as Angel, Collins’ cross-dressing significant other).

Meenan is on interstellar form. His lightning fast, fluid movements suggest he’d be the one to back in a 2-on-1 prize fight against Jackie Chan and Dame Edna. Meenan is camp, courageous, charming and – above all – courteous – daring to share the limelight so as to shine more brightly.

Not since Lily Cade met India Summers has a sapphic combo been as hot as the pairing of Caroline Elms (as lesbian lawyer Joanne) and Roz Ford (as bisexual performance artist Maureen). Both have superb presence, a mastery of pace and comic timing. Together they’re an alchemy reminiscent of Candice Bergen in Murphy Brown, Carla Gugino in Spin City, or Moira Kelly in The West Wing.

If Rent was truly bohemian (rather than theatrical hand sanitizer) we might have seen Rachael Anderson tumbled into their heady mix in a ménage-à-hell-yeah. Anderson’s jaw dropping portrayal of erotic dancer Mimi slips the surly bonds of physicality, lifting this production into a godlike orbit, circling the clumsy trendiness of Lawson’s checklist re-rendering of La Belle Époque original.

Eilidh Bruce Bass’ costumes establish the production’s look and feel as high 90s – existing somewhere between when Fraiser stopped looking like Cheers, but before Friends stopped looking like Seinfeld. Her clever attention to detail provides a palette of subtle retrospection on the period, touching up where Rent’s oh-so earnest themes have faded. The costumes achieve the remarkable feat of blending with the set without being lost in it.

And it really is a brilliant set. The band are incorporated without being outsourced to a balcony or platform. The back lighting comes through grimy green industrial window panes, each one an individual tale of neglect underscoring the dramatic meaning rising from below. The ensemble draw the various levels together passing props up and down with never a fumble. The stage right lighting rig is part of the set. That tubular grey lattice – which in most productions needs to be blanked out by the mind’s eye – it’s hanging there, at an angle, bold as brass. Who’d have thunk it? Well Andrew McDivitt did and it’s why his set designs are worth the ticket price alone (and then some).

As musical theatre Rent is what it is from when it was. The songs aren’t especially catchy, the narrative arcs are a muddled rainbow, the characters are embalmed in worthy sentiment. Jonathan Larson’s tragic death on the opening night of his work in progress denied audiences the chance to see the tweaks and changes he might have made.

Still, it’s hard not to get excited when Footlight’s production time comes around. High professional standards abound, not least from the ensemble who supercharge everything with which they come into contact. First-timer Campbell Keith is first among equals for his infectious enthusiasm, commitment and drive.

For me, as an essentially sedentary being, watching this cast might be what a flightless penguin feels looking up at a flock of starlings – isn’t it marvellous! How do they co-ordinate like that? And what kind of fish do they catch in the sky?

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Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 10 February)

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