Edinburgh Festival Reviews

I’ve been in Edinburgh on and off during August, doing some reviews for a couple of local magazines, The List and Fest. It’s been great fun – I’ve seen some great stuff as well as the inevitable dross – but rather post all my reviews here I’ll paste a couple of samples with links to the rest of them.

Winner By Submission
Derek, Winner By Submission’s odious protagonist, lives by the snappy motto: “Life is a cage fight.” It’s an apt metaphor: sitting through this lopsided new play by American writer William Mastrosimone feels a lot like watching a couple of ring-rusty cage fighters halfheartedly going at each other. There’s a decent move or two at the start, then lots of heavy-handed rushing about, before someone (in this case the audience) is finally pounded into surrender.

Greasy, lank-haired Derek is the friend from hell: he lives in his parent’s basement, dreams of being a pro fighter, drinks copious amounts of Budweiser, and generally acts like a spoiled brat. The latter mainly involves bullying his putative friends, geeky Kelly and preppy Jared (or is that Jerry? The carbon-copy nasally American accents are difficult to decipher).

So far, so “suburban America.” However, when Derek introduces date-rape drug GHB into the equation (and into coquettish schoolgirl Shannon’s drink) the lines between fantasy and reality become hideously blurred.

At least that’s the intention. But while Derek’s dark fantasies of gang-raping Shannon and broadcasting the event live on the internet are real—and scary—enough, Jared’s sudden change of heart is not only out of character, it destroys any dramatic potential (though it ultimately saves Shannon).

In the end, Winner by Submission lacks the courage of its own convictions. Mastrosimone purports to shine a light into the dark hearts of men but shies away from revealing what lurks within. This play wants to be nasty, LaBute-ish and short – but in the end it’s just short.

Henry Paker’s 3-D Bugle
“I’m Henry Paker and I approached Nick Faldo in an airport when I was 12.” For most comedians, writing for Mock the Week and 8 Out of 10 Cats would rank higher in their career achievements than a chance encounter with the 1996 Masters Champion – but then Henry Paker isn’t your average comedian.

Paker’s standup mixes off-the-wall observations about conventional subjects (mobile phones, clothes, toasters) with wild, anarchic flights of fancy. In lesser hands this would be a surefire recipe for comic disaster but the tall, shaven-headed Englishman’s commanding presence and chaotic wit has the audience rolling in the aisles for vast majority of an action-packed hour.

There is a script—or it least there seems to be—but Paker is at his gleefully misanthropic best when throwing it out the window. The discovery that an audience member is reading “The Taxidermist’s Book of Recipes” (or The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes, as its author calls it) leads to an extended, inspired riff about a Swiss doctor stuffing foxes with beef to present to the King of France.

Although his humour is mostly observational, Paker has no fear of throwing physicality into the mix. He bounds excitedly about the stage, jumping onto empty front rows and using his not insubstantial frame to great comic effect.

Paker is a riotous, iconoclastic star in the making. On current form, bumping into former golf icons in departure lounges won’t be his main claim to fame for much longer.

The rest of my Fest reviews are available here and my reviews for The List can be seen here.

Friel’s trilogy a triumph

Review of the Brian Friel trilogy from Sunday Business Post 07/09: Brian Friel turned 80 this year and, as part of its tribute to the playwright, the Gate Theatre has reprised three works from his back catalogue: Faith Healer, Afterplay and The Yalta Game. After opening at the Sydney Festival, the trilogy transferred to Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre for the International Festival, which ends today.


Directed by Garry Hynes

Selected dates from September 12-19

Rating: ****

Anton Chekhov has provided inspiration and source material for many of Friel’s greatest theatrical triumphs. In Afterplay, he performs an impressive feat of theatrical alchemy, recovering characters from his two most famous adaptations to create a work that is as novel and inventive as it is poignant and touching.

afterplay120A dilapidated Moscow cafe is the scene of a chance encounter between a strong willed, prickly middle-aged woman – lovesick Sonya Serebriakova from Uncle Vanya – and a bumbling fantasist, Andrey Prozorov, spendthrift brother of the infamous Three Sisters.

With subtlety and verve, Niall Buggy and Frances Barber bring to life two souls haunted by pasts they can neither reconcile with, nor move on from. The financial legacy of her uncle’s hubris weighs heavily on Sonya’s shoulders, while Andrey pines visibly for a wife who has long since abandoned him.

Over the course of an hour and several large vodkas, each character’s sad collection of ‘fables’, ‘fictions’, ‘untruths’ and ‘lies’ unravel slowly and painfully. Andrey, it turns out, is not starring in La Boheme – he busks on the street so he can visit his jailbird son. And Sonya is hopelessly in love with her uncle’s drunken, married doctor.

Friel shows us individuals lost in their own imaginary worlds, waiting expectantly for the realisation of a hope that will almost certainly go unfulfilled. This fact Sonya accepts readily, if melancholically: ‘‘It is not the most satisfactory way to get through a life, but it is away.”

Garry Hynes’s unfussy direction complements Friel’s exquisite writing by drawing out its emotional depth without suppressing its lighter moments. Such intricate intermingling of light and shade, fantasy and reality, marks Afterplay out as so much more than a clever theatrical conceit well executed.

The Russian master would surely have approved.

The Yalta Game

Directed by Patrick Mason Selected dates from September 13-19

Rating: ****

Based on Chekhov’s short story Lady with Lapdog, The Yalta Game debuted in Dublin in 2001. The play takes its name from a novel game of seduction pursued by charismatic Muscovite Dmitri Dmitrich Gurov along the Crimean resort’s bustling promenades .With a love interest in tow, Dmitri gazes at wandering holiday makers and invents spurious, often titillating back stories for them.

During one such ‘‘daylong diversion’’, Dmitri befriends Anna Sergeyevna, an innocent young woman from near St Petersburg on a sabbatical from her older, domineering husband. In the unreal world of Yalta’s casinos and ferries, their flirtation quickly develops into a full-blown holiday romance.

But when Anna’s ailing spouse calls her home, the relationship with Dmitri is over. Or is it?
Faced with the mundane reality of their married lives, both characters slip into a world of imagination, a world where they are together forever in a perfect (and impossible) union. Lost in his fantasies, the once cocksure Dmitri is driven by love – or more accurately longing – to doubt everything in his life: ‘‘things that once seemed real now become imagined things.”

Over 50 finely-crafted minutes, Friel reveals the depressing emptiness that leads Anna and Dmitri into a long-distance affair that both know is doomed but neither can end. It all flows elegantly, aided by Patrick Mason’s simple production and Liz Ascroft’s spartan set – a handful of bare wooden chairs sit scattered across the stage.

Both players are excellent: Ristéard Cooper’s Dmitri is animated, loquacious and confident, Rebecca O’Mara’s Anna the perfect mix of vulnerable beauty and coldhearted duplicity.

The Yalta Game is a short play, and the razor-sharp exchanges between the couple are delivered almost without skipping a breath. This reviewer would have preferred more time to savour the dialogue’s cut and thrust. But then time is the one thing star-crossed lovers never have to spare.

Oh, What A Lovely War! Review Sunday Business Post 11/04/09

Joan Littlewood once said Oh, What A Lovely War! ‘is not aconventional play and will not come to life if treated as such’. From the Perriot clown who chastises the audience taking their seats to the pre-recorded sing-song by Bruiser Production’s patron Duke Special, this revival of Littlewood’s savage evisceration of the first world war seldom plays it straight.

First produced by the legendary Theatre Workshop in 1963, the play blends militant politics and entertainment as a Pierrot troupe perform sketches and songs while images and newspaper clippings about the number of dead flash up on a screen behind them. In this recasting of the great war the real heroes are not the callous, negligent officer class but the aptly titled cannon fodder.

This is physical theatre at its finest. The nine-strong troupe convincingly shift between intentionally jingoistic caricatures of the great powers – effeminate France, anti-Semitic Russia, officious Germany – and ribald trench songs about everything from poison gas and bombs to homesickness and fear of death: ‘I don’t want a bayonet in my belly/I don’t want my bollocks shot away.’

Humour is used throughout to both send up and underline the absurdity of war. In an early scene a reticent gang of Pierrots in English army caps practice rifle manoeuvres with pink parasols and sticks. Admonishing their squeamishness, a stereotypically foul-mouthed, moustachioed drill sergeant growls at them: ‘You look at Jerry, imagine he’s doing something to your mother.’

Commandingly directed by Lisa May, the play evokes strong emotional responses without drifting into sentimentality. The potent mix of facts and photographs attests the scale of the horror, while dramatic moments like the exchange of gifts and songs across no man’s land at Christmas 1914 provide haunting, poignant reminders of the gulf between combatants and cause.

The performances are universally excellent. Although it seems somewhat churlish to single anyone out the acting and singing of Patrick J O’Reilly, Faolán Morgan and Niamh McGowan deserve special praise.

By turns bawdry and touching, the songs retain a vibrancy that belies their age, and live instruments, including accordion, flute and drums, believably recreate the sounds of war.

In keeping with Bruiser’s maxim of ‘minimum set for maximum effect’, David Craig’s spartan set is wholly fit for purpose. All furniture needs are served by four movable slabs, and Sean Paul O’Rawe’s unfussy lighting – simple chains of naked coloured bulbs – complements the drama’s shifting tone.

From Afghanistan to Iraq, the spectre of war still hangs over all. While it would be fascinating to see Oh, What A Lovely War! updated for such media saturated conflicts, this excellent production is a fitting tribute to those who went to their graves in the first world war, and a damning indictment of those who sent them there.