+3 Review: Penetrating Europe, or Migrants Have Talent (Paradise in Augustines: until 28th Aug: 21:35: 1hr)

“Sandalovych doesn’t simply engage the audience, she immerses us in the tumultuous narrative.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars:  Nae Bad 

Our host (Dave Strudelbar) for this evening’s episode of Migrants Have Talent bounds down the stairs before introducing the evening’s two judges: immigration officer, Nigel Nobson (Uilleam Blacker) as well as glamorous former illegal immigrant, Nigella Smith (Lesya Liskevych).  Nigella explains that she was talent-spotted after five years of cleaning the toilets at Television Centre. She cleaned toilets under her original name, she minor celebs with a new one, changed by deed poll. Together Nigel and Nigella decide who stays and who is deported, with the audience voting in the event of a tie.

There are five contestants. Actor Iaroslav Tsigan’s character is from Ukraine. He traveled to Britain on false Polish papers. A likeable character, his honesty fails to impress the stern judges. Interwoven with the talent show format are the stories of two young people, who relate how it is to travel and cross borders. One is going east to Ukraine for an adventure; the other west, by land and sea, to join family already in Britain.

These paired stories, delivered solo with other cast members playing the role of various officials, are the most effective part of the production.  The contrasting experiences and expectations of the two young people are increasingly moving. Actor Ira Sandalovych compellingly portrays a descent into fear. Sandalovych doesn’t simply engage the audience, she immerses us in the tumultuous narrative.

Most of the large cast are employed in the Migrants Have Talent sections.  Writers Blacker and Olesha Khromeychuk deploy a tongue in cheek style of satire that seeks to lighten what are, in reality, stories of genuine human suffering. At no point are we allowed to forget that not a million miles away from the Fringe, real people are really living through such uncomic tragedies. Still, this is above all a theatre piece. How effective (as opposed to affecting) is it?

The message is crystal clear. Humanity is common: borders and suffering man made.

If there is a problem it’s is one of counterpoint. Does the satire sparkle bright enough against the darkness of the immigrants’ tales? The lighting is handed well and sound, with the ensemble song describing cranes flying away to die in foreign lands (a poem from 19th century Ukraine) is truly beautiful in such a small venue.  However, with such a large cast, the staging does slip into awkward moment but, overall, this is a more than likeable production whose heart is definitely in the right place.
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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Martin Veart   (Seen 23 August)

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‘Chess: The Musical’ (Pleasance Theatre: 18 – 22 November ’14)

Photo: Oliver Buchanan

Photo: Oliver Buchanan

“Without Clark’s poise on which to pivot, the story might have given up and defected to the bar.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Priests, poets and psychiatrists all agree that the border between pure genius and melancholy madness is chequered with 64 black and white squares (with a white one always on the right). Next time you encounter that tramp in Potterrow Port, the one who’s convinced he’s Marcel Duchamp, ask him whether mad people gravitate to chess, or if chess makes them so. Chances are he’ll mutter darkly about the Lasker-Reichhelm position, but he might respond that the dedicated player lives “a monk-like existence and know[s] more rejection than any artist.”

The real Duchamp, the one who’d never been seen dead with a trolley from Aldi, directed those words to American prodigy Bobby Fischer, upon whose bizarre biography, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (loosely) based a musical.

Inspired by the 1972 match between Fischer and Boris Spassky, the ABBA alumni spun a yarn interweaving two grandmasters’ competition in the arena, over a lady, and among the ideological roadblocks of Cold War politics. Truthfully, Gilbert and Sullivan Chess is not. The undeniable success of this production says more about EUSOG’s commitment to sampling work pas a la D’Oyly Carte than it does about Andersson & Ulvaeus’ capacity for profound historical commentary post-1815.

We enter to find the orchestra have escaped from their pit, and are lording it above the action. Production Manager Tom Turner has crammed more steeldeck into the set than went into South Park’s Ladder to Heaven. Visually the effect is elegant, the band’s movements in stylish harmony with Sam Burkett’s clever choreography. However x4 keys, drums, bass guitar, x3 violins, x2 cellos, flute, x2 clarinet, x3 trumpets, trombone, bassoon, oboe, french horn as well as percussion will tend to make a fair bit of noise and some dampening field needed to be generated for the sake of the singers down below.

Douglas Clark shone as Anatoly, making the script & song his own so as to cover the extensive narrative arc laid out for him. Without Clark’s poise on which to pivot, the story might have given up and defected to the bar. Tadgh Cullen (as Freddie) nailed Fischer’s astonishing angst. It was easy to see why Lydia Carrington (as Florence, the lady interest) would love him, and even easier to see why she left. I thought having Cullen sing his big number an octave higher than his vocal range was a brilliant piece of 4th wall smashing artistry, subtly underlining Freddie’s inner turmoil. My companion, smarter than your average bear, though it was a Boo-Boo. Cullen’s commitment held out. Our cheering was long, loud and genuine.

Giselle Yonace (as the tournament arbiter), Caroline Hickling (as Anatoly’s Russian wife), Peter Green (as the US manager), and Steven Segaud (as the mendacious USSR fixer) found the space to establish bold performances, spotlighting and supporting the main cast’s quirks and qualities. When Segaud tapped the vein of comic villainy in his character, I wasn’t the only one LMAO.

Ethan Baird’s direction emphasised the characters and the story they had to tell. But rather like flat pack furniture after the third house move, Chess is starting to show both its age and essential flimsiness. The producers are a bit young (and far too stylish) to embrace an ‘80s nostalgic short hand, but would one double-breasted suit have killed them? Would a visual of tactical nuclear warheads rolling through Red Square been so amiss? Several pieces were missing from this puzzling-out of a not so retro script.

If a musical about chess, written by the blokes from ABBA, set in the Evil Empire’s dreary dying days isn’t enough to float your Typhoon-Class, then here’s the only reason you’ll ever need to get out and kill, maim or mutilate whatever man or beast stands between you and the front row seats: Lydia Carrington.

She’s amazing. Her gorgeous voice battles down the band like Eva Green casually knocking down Greeks in the latest 300 movie. Carrington’s give and take with the male leads is as beguiling as Keira Knightley, as sexy as Elisha Cuthbert, and as anticipateringly exciting as when Elizabeth Warren made a cameo opposite John Goodman in Alpha House.

If you don’t see Carrington now, you’ll only have to pretend you did later. Unlike my VHS of Learn Chess with Nigel Short (ft. Carol Vorderman) this is one to watch.



Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 19 November)

Visit EUSOG here

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‘The Lives of the High-Rise Saints’ (Summerhall: 10 – 12 Oct ’13)


Image by pawlowicz.art.pl

“Anyone who has worked on a DIY project will know that there are always bits left over, and this is the starting point of Ameijko’s work. God’s work took six days and on the seventh day he rested – but on the seventh day the flotsam and jetsam from creation gathered together in a tower block.”

Editorial Rating: Unrated 

The Lives of The High-Rise Saints brings a wide range of disciplines to the Summerhall stage. This one woman puppetry show from Agata Kucinska reaches into the reject pile of society to examine the inner strength that people can find to get through their lives.

Many of the visuals are slightly twisted away from the norm, and the inventiveness behind the design is a delight to see. The performance is a technical tour de force that uses everything from very small rod puppets through to larger human-arm puppets, and even Kucinska donning a mask and puppet limbs to physically take on one of the roles herself.

The story itself, adapted from the work of the same name by Poland’s Lidla Amejko, is both dark and challenging. Anyone who has worked on a DIY project will know that there are always bits left over, and this is the starting point of Ameijko’s work. God’s work took six days and on the seventh day he rested – but on the seventh day the flotsam and jetsam from creation gathered together in a tower block. Trusting only in themselves, they scrape out a living at the fringe of society, a motley band of wastrels, tortured souls, and dubious morals, sharing the tales of their lives with each other and the audience.

On the surface there is little to love about these characters. Rejected by the rest of the world, it is very easy to gloss over them on stage and write them off, but this slow burn of characterisation through individual vignettes is countered by the love and energy Kucinska brings to the stage. You approach each character with trepidation and an almost grotesque curiosity before slowly being pulled into their world.

It’s backed with an inventive live sound-scape that mixes foley effects and music to highlight the sadness of this world. This contrasts well with the small moments of joy each character has to look for to break the monotony of their life with brief bursts of joy and satisfaction.

You need to make that journey to appreciate the small moments that make their lives bearable, but the experience and repetition as the script moves through the roll call left me with a sense of exploitation and horror. This is not an easy performance to watch, but it is layered, thoughtful, and has much to say.

Technically Kucinska has mastered the many facets of puppetry used throughout the show, but with the grotesque nature of the characterisation it becomes hard to connect with the characters. This is not aided by the tone, which is almost oppressive in its darkness; while this accurately reflects the world the characters inhabit, it inhibits investment in their plight and results in the show failing to realise its potential to truly captivate the audience’s attention. Dark can work if enough empathy can be created, but the various elements of the show never quite clicked together, resulting in a somewhat disjointed experience.

Everyone in life is dealt some rubbish cards and the occupants of the tower block know just how weak their cards are but they make the best of the trying circumstances and show a great resilience of spirit in the face of depression and hostility. There is a lesson in there for all of us.

‘The Fantasticks’ (Bedlam: 9 – 12 Oct ’13)


Image by Louise Spence

“Performed in New York almost continuously since 1960, The Fantasticks is a curiously-constructed musical.  The first act is cutesy – sometimes to a fault – telling the knowingly-ridiculous tale of a forbidden teenage romance, and of two fathers’ efforts to control their love-struck offspring.”

Editorial Rating: Unrated

“Try to remember the kind of September / When life was slow, and oh, so mellow,” exhorts The Fantasticks’ famed opening song. Well, they’ve missed September by a week or two, but in every other respect Edinburgh University Theatre Company have fulfilled that brief: this is a warm-hearted, uncomplicated production, which gently lulls you backwards into an agreeably nostalgic haze.  Sadly, however, the lyric also foretells this production’s main weakness.  It’s all just a little bit slow.

Performed in New York almost continuously since 1960, The Fantasticks is a curiously-constructed musical.  The first act is cutesy – sometimes to a fault – telling the knowingly-ridiculous tale of a forbidden teenage romance, and of two fathers’ efforts to control their love-struck offspring.  But after the interval, the scenes grow dream-like and altogether darker, in a dislocating transition which this particular production never quite pulled off.  It doesn’t help that the original boy-meets-girl plot is wrapped up by the end of Act One, leaving the second half to lumber away from an awkward standing start.

But we can’t blame EUTC for the plot’s idiosyncrasies, and they’ve certainly had fun responding to its old-style American charm. Jordan Robert-Laverty neatly captures the clean-cut naivety of a 1950’s college boy, while Claire Saunders excels as his swooning 16-year-old paramour, milking the comedy of her role without ever quite crossing the line into over-acting.  Saunders’ voice lends her songs an almost operatic tone, and contrasts nicely with the more natural style of Alexandre Poole – who brings an understated authority to his multi-faceted role as both villain and narrator.

Muscially, however, the performance suffered from frustrating inconsistency, with almost all the actors delivering showstopping performances for some songs while clearly struggling with others.  The surprising exceptions were Daniel Harris and Thomas Ware, playing the two teenagers’ warring fathers; their characters seem at first to be formulaic comedy chumps, but soon prove to be far more.  Harris and Ware both have fine, comforting voices, and their harmonising duets proved a thoroughly unexpected highlight – enhanced by some genuinely witty, if slightly methodical, dance.

Indeed, the whole production demonstrates a playful sense of physicality, with an impressive swordfight (and gloriously extended death scene) raising the stakes just before the interval.  But whenever the pace wasn’t being dictated by the music, the energy ebbed away.

So EUTC’s production isn’t quite fantastic – but it’s an enjoyable, stylish, and life-affirming version of a cosily charming musical. Credit must also go to pianist Dan Glover and harpist (yes, harpist) Sam MacAdam, whose position at the side of the stage brings them very much into the heart of the performance.  It’s a show I’ll be sure to remember.

‘Dark Road’ (Lyceum: 25 Sept – 19 Oct ’13)

Robert Gwilym as Frank Bowman , Ron Donachie as Fergus McLintock and Maureen Beattie as Isobel McArthur

Image by Douglas McBride

“The production is a mixed bag in most regards.”

Editorial Rating: Unrated

Ian Rankin is no stranger to Edinburgh’s criminal underworld –fictionally, of course. Inspector Rebus, Rankin’s most famous literary creation, is known to millions as the slightly off-beat but loveable curmudgeon, for whom this city’s cobbled streets are home. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that his theatrical debut (in collaboration with the Lyceum’s own Mark Thomson) is firmly rooted in this world.

It is twenty five years since the conviction of Alfred Chalmers for the murder and mutilation of four young Edinburgh women (there are definite comparisons to be made with the BBC’s hit series The Fall). This, combined with her thirtieth anniversary of being on the force, provokes Superintendent Isobel McArthur (Maureen Beattie) to reflect on what proved a land mark case in her career; or, more specifically, on a nagging doubt she has harboured since that day. Dredging up the past, however, reveals a well of raw emotions in both her closest work colleagues and her only daughter, Alexandra.

The production is a mixed bag in most regards. On the one hand, much of the writing is disappointingly predictable – not simply in terms of the plot, but also the inclusion of well-worn topics such as sexism in the police, the role of a policeman’s ‘hunch’ in conviction, and the bureaucratic barrier of paperwork that stands between policemen and ‘real police work’; a commentary that fails to really add any new angles on these issues. On the other, some of the writing is delicious – finding its strongest moments in scenes of quippy character interaction.

Similarly, a handful of characters were intensely believable – Philip Whitchurch’s portrayal of Alfred Chalmers was magnetic, managing to baffle the audience and leave us in a confused state, somewhere between terror and sympathy. But, at the other end of the spectrum, Sara Vickers (Alexandra) was lumped with a caricature of a teenage girl, whose mood swings between being angsty and angry, and as horny as a bitch in heat, leave her little room for development.

An area of no doubt, however, was staging – which was certainly the production’s strongest suit. The three room revolve worked incredibly well, particularly with the addition of corridors which provided both a realistic edge and an extra dimension to the performance. Furthermore, the soundtrack, ranging from a lamenting violin to Psycho inspired string segments, did much to add dramatic tension in scenes and maintain atmosphere between them; combining well with projections that slowly built a visual backstory for the audience.

Dark Road has the beginnings of a good production, but there is work to be done. It would benefit from some trimming – particularly in the first half, where certain scenes and ideas dragged on too long – and a more careful concealment of the plot to avoid the predictability that currently plagues it. As it stands, Dark Road is middle of the road.

Reviewer: Madeleine Ash (Seen 28 September)

Visit Dark Road homepage here.

‘The Baroness: Karen Blixen’s Final Affair’ (Traverse; 27-28 Sept ’13)

Dogstar Theatre The Baroness Roberta Taylor (Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) Photo credit Leila Angus

Image by Leila Angus

 “Among Denmark’s literary superstars few are more fascinating than Karen Blixen, pen name Isak Dinesen (1883-1962). The Baroness is the story of her final affair: a platonic entanglement with a much younger poet.”

Editorial Rating: Unrated

For a country where summer temperatures struggle to exceed 20°C, in terms of cultural exports, Denmark and all things Danish are surprisingly hot right now. Successes such as The Killing and Borgen have rocketed outside awareness and interest. Among Denmark’s literary superstars few are more fascinating than Karen Blixen, pen name Isak Dinesen (1883-1962). The Baroness is the story of her final affair: a platonic entanglement with a much younger poet.

We enter to find two harp-shaped window frames with fewer right angles than the Goetheanum. In one hangs a tribal mask intended to conjure images of Blitzen’s years as a coffee planter in Africa (I think it resembles Norman Tebbit). An eclectic harmony of furniture perfectly captures the sense that we are looking into the dwelling place of a mind born for the Belle Époque. Her young companion is evidently much less at home. He belongs instead to that new generation which Kennedy’s Danish-American speechwriter would describe a year before Blixen’s death as “tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.”

The friendship of Blixen and Thorkild Bjørnvig is a matter of historical record. At times the script creeps into the realm of docudrama. When Blixen encourages her protégée to abandon his wife, child and work in order to compel the flow of his artistic creativity, she laments that Denmark is “flat as a duck pond”. Similarly, the muted script gives little sense of a tempest brewing in, or subsequently howling through, the hearts of the protagonists.

Roberta Taylor as Blixen and Ewan Donald as Bjørnvig provide well-rounded individual character sketches. There are flashes of real insight, such as Donald’s steadily improving posture, but there is little shared fascination. Blixen is portrayed at the centre of a social and cultural web in which she occultishly snares young bloods with which to feed her imagination.

Several of the techniques deployed to fill a stylized frame with stylish content are over hesitant. The dramatic function of the mutual friend (played charmingly by Romana Abercromby), for example, is uncertain – diverting more than developing the over-lengthy central narrative. By the interval I think I’ve got the point. Other than the brightly conceived set transition from Blixen’s home to Bjørnvig’s northern hideaway, not much more is said or done.

Pace was a problem throughout. Far from crisp efficiency, the frequent scene changes are slow (although composer Aiden O’Rourke’s bold, introspective score make this less of a negative). Projection was a problem too, I did not feel played to in the steeply tiered back row of Traverse One.

Dogstar Theatre squeezed hard and a good amount of zesty juice was delivered into the glass. If their future endeavours maintain the very high standards set by The Baroness for smart, funny staging of deep, moody drama then we can expect great things from them in the coming years.

Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 28 September)

Visit The Baroness homepage here.

Three to See: Summerhall: September ’13

This September Edinburgh49‘s Three to See events at Summerhall are:

Only Wolves and Lions (18:30 – 12 & 14, 14:30 – 15 September, Summerhall)

“Only Wolves And Lions takes a fresh look at human behaviour in the pursuit of happiness. After food clothes and shelter, what do we need? Exploring ideas surrounding community, isolation and the meaning of the word crisis, Leo Kay and Unai Lopez de Armentia invite you to cook, eat and speak together”

Images Were Introduced (11:00-18:00 – Daily until 27 September, Summerhall)

“Michael Nyman’s first ever exhibition in Scotland will consist of a major installation in Summerhall’s Upper Church Gallery (off Hope Street Terrace) showing simultaneously the video film-maker, photographer and composer’s ten (10!) remakes of the famous vintage film “Man with a Movie Camera” by the Russian film-maker Dziga Vertov and his wife Yelizaveta Svilova (who edited the film).”

Neu! Reekie! 39 (19:00, 27 September, Summerhall)

“Brought to you my Michael Pedersen and Kevin Williamson Neu! Reekie! is a delicious feast of spoken word, music, animation and film fusion.”

Four to Paw: The Stand: September ’13

This September Edinburgh49‘s Four to Paw shows at The Stand are:

Red Raw (19:30, 2nd, 9th, 16th 23rd & 30th September, The Stand)

“Our long-running weekly beginner’s showcase is regarded as the best open mic night in the UK. Catch up to ten new acts – some treading the boards for the very first time. This is where everyone starts and it’s your chance to see the stars of tomorrow today. Watch out for older hands dropping in to try out new material too.”

With Matt Rudge and host Scott Gibson.

Whose Lunch is it Anyway (13:30, 8th, 15th, 22nd & 29th September, The Stand)

“Our long-running improvised comedy show will have you in stitches. Marvel as resident duo Stu & Garry weave comedy magic from your suggestions. It’s the perfect way to nurse a hangover and a sure-fire way to kick-start your weekend after the big night out. There’s a special menu too so you’ll be in danger of laughing with your mouth full.”

The Sunday Night Laugh-In (19:30, 22nd September, The Stand)

“Round off the weekend with our comedy cocktail which has the emphasis on the chilled and the laid back. At least five acts on each bill ensure variety and its great value at just a fiver. With Chris Conroy, Gareth Mutch and host Ben Verth.”

Best of Scottish Comedy (20:30, 25th September, The Stand)

“Talk about doing what it says on the tin! Here you go a carload of simply the best comics on the contemporary Scottish circuit. At least four acts on every bill with seasoned headliners joining forces with newer kids on the comedy block each month.”