Edinburgh Fringe reviews 2011

A less busy year than last, as I tried to avoid being knackered. Still, here's what I saw and reviewed for The Scotsman newspaper. Review ratings were out of five.


COMEDY
Neil Delamere: Divilment
Pleasance Courtyard
* * * *
DIVILMENT. It's Irish for mischief. And that's just what Neil Delamere brought in this easygoing hour, tales of a everyday life as distilled by a sharp comic mind.

As ever, he began by getting to know the audience. On this night he's gifted a man named Roger, a hospice nurse who made for some wonderfully black moments, while Beulah from Zimbabwe and Andrew the Actuary also enjoyed a bit of back and forth banter.

The set included a hilarious tale of housemate shenanigans centred on the ghost of a hanged man/turnip and balloon-tastic observations on the Queen's recent visit to Ireland. I'd be hard-pressed to give you blow-by-blow details because I was too busy laughing to commit them to memory. And the specifics aren't that important because it really is the way Delamere - a big star on Irish TV - tells 'em.

His mind racing, he's constantly assessing his performance, pulling himself up for anything he perceives as lazy. So even discounting the audience interaction, you're not going to get the same show two nights in a row. And while he gets a bit sweary a times, Delamere's sweet nature makes everything sound charming as hell.

If you've yet to see Delamere live, make this the year. Or the divil take you ...


CABARET
The Playhouse at Hawke and Hunter Green Room
James Galea - I Hate Rabbits
* * * *
CHARM. Without it, a stage magician is nothing. James Galea, with big smile, chirpy personality and Life Is Fun T-shirt, has it by the bucketload. He reminds me of Fringe favourite (sadly missing this year) Adam Hills, a big puppy of a man you immediately want to be your best mate.

But get too close and you might see how he does his tricks. Then again, you probably won't, for Galea is a master of close-up magic, confident enough not only to let an audience member stand by him, but to have a camera aimed at his hands so the whole room can have a crack at working out how he does it.

How he makes just the right card appear from the pack, the pea never be under the 'right' shell or a wristwatch cross the room ... that sort of thing.

What he doesn't play with are rabbits (the clue's in the title), which is a shame, as a bunny or two might have brightened the show for me. For while I can marvel at Galea's skill, and bask in his niceness, an hour-plus of card tricks and upending bottles is a tad too much. There's no build to a massive trick, no unforgettable climax to a gently enjoyable evening.

But if close-up magic is your thing, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better exponent.


CHILDREN'S SHOWS
Mad Science Dangerous Family Show
Laughing Horse at the Counting House
* * * *
IF THERE'S one aspect of science that the kids, mums and dads learned about at this Free Fringe show, it's energy. The levels as mad genius Professor Kaos and limelight-hungry assistant Dangerous Dave made a sometimes dry subject sing were madly impressive.

Dressed in customised lab coats, the pair wrangled the young 'uns through such fun diversions as how to blow a balloon up with your nose, how to get an egg through the narrow neck of a bottle and how to make a pingpong ball float.

And it wasn't just the children who got to go on stage - a couple of brave mums subjected themselves to the Prof's special wand, demonstrating how an electrical current can pass from person to person. They were well-tickled, along with the rest of the packed house.

The final lesson showed that there are much more entertaining things to do with icing sugar than make soppy cupcakes; sadly, the trick is firmly in the area of 'don't try this at home'.

Professor Kaos and Dangerous Dave have an obvious natural rapport with children, but still deserve credit for working hard and getting the room excited - but not so excited that they miss out on the facts being delivered. This is perfect fare for budding Brainiacs.


COMEDY
Slim in Wonderland
The Playhouse at Hawke and Hunter Green Room
* * * *
I WAS a little dubious about seeing this show due to the flyer - Danny 'Slim' Gray dressed as the Mad Hatter bestriding Lewis Carroll's fantasy land, like some whimsical Kid Creole.

Then the show begins and the man appears, dressed entirely ordinarily. What isn't ordinary is his talent and craft - Slim's sheer likeability had the audience on side within a minute and his stories kept us there for the whole hour. It's a polished set, but delivered as if he's sharing it for the first time.

Whether he's talking about the ways bus drivers get revenge on annoying passengers, how grandmas let today's bairns get away with things their own kids got thwacked for or why women are like ninjas when they go to the loo, Slim is hilarious.

Best of all is this Brixton lad's tale of woe involving a painful personal part after an evening on the couch with an overexcited ladyfriend - never has a catheter seemed so funny. The - ahem - male members of the audience were squirming down below, but the funny bones couldn't have been happier.

Supremely relaxed and as sharp as he's sweet, Slim is a comic to watch. Just don't come looking for Alice.


MUSICALS AND OPERA
Sunday in the Park With George
C Chambers Street
* * * * *
PARIS, 1884, on the eve of the Exposition that saw the building of the Eiffel Tower, and Georges Seurat is sketching studies for his latest painting. He's on the island of La Grande Jatte, with his model and lover Dot. It's hot and she's uncomfortable, but Georges doesn't care much - he has an attitude to capture, and not the troublesome kind. Around them are regular visitors to the park, including an old lady and her nurse, two young ladies, a young man with a dog and his artistic rival Jules.

They all know Georges, and they all have an opinion on his art - he's talented, he's wasting his time, he's obsessed ... but Georges doesn't care. At least he effects not to be bothered by the opinions of others, even when Dot finally leaves him for the less exciting, but more dependable, p√Ętissier Louis.

Chicago, 1984. Sculptor George is unveiling his latest bells and whistles work, Chromolume #7, to potential patrons. He's accompanied by his grandmother, Marie - the child Dot brought to America when she emigrated with Louis. A few weeks later, Dot has died and George is on that Paris island, contemplating the staleness of his artistic path. There he encounters the shades of those his great-grandfather painted ...

Such are the bare bones of the story. I can't convey the richness of actually experiencing Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical drama as presented by the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Its meditations on art vs life are brought thrillingly, touchingly, to life in a production that meshes perfectly from beginning to end.

In the lynchpin role of Georges and George, Robert Dalton commands the stage, with such charisma that you understand why Dot puts up with him as long as she does. Likewise, you see why she eventually moves on. And Dalton's confident, adaptable tenor sees him put across such songs as Finishing the Hat with charm.

The furiously talented Ruthie Luff (with Sarah Gibbons playing the part at alternate shows) makes a luminous Dot, her intelligence and warmth making you wonder why Georges sees her, but doesn't see her. She delivers numbers such as Everybody Loves Louis and her duet with George, Move On. with real heart. She also convincingly essays the role of Marie without resort to knee-jerk dodderiness.

The entire ensemble excels in their dual roles, and ensure the show's best-known songs, Sunday, and Putting it Together, are suitably gorgeous and witty respectively. And the orchestra, under musical director Alan Bukowiecki, never put a note wrong.

Unlike recent big budget productions, this show doesn't use animation or 3D projection or, for all I know, flying monkeys, to jolly the action along. Director Philip Howard's version - the first staged in Scotland - relies on pure talent and theatricality; the moment when Parisiens enjoying The Day Off come together to form Seurat's pointillist masterpiece Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte is magical.


MUSICALS AND OPERA
Showchoir! The Musical
C, Chambers Street
* * * *
AN IDEALISTIC teacher sets up a showchoir at a smalltown school with a jock, cheerleaders and a very camp young man among its members ... 

... are you thinking, 'obvious Glee rip-off'? I certainly was, but no, this show debuted in 2007, before Sue Sylvester bought her first tracksuit.

Having sorted that out, let's focus on Donald Garverick and Mark McDaniels' show, staged by the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. The set-up has a TV documentary looking at the rise and fall and rise of the Symphonic Sensations, showchoir turned family friendly pop stars. Unlike the TV kids, Jake Jonathan's ensemble doesn't stick to cover versions, they perform songs written by his co-director, Monica Susans.

And cracking songs they are too, witty and insightful numbers riffing on the showbiz dream, such as the cheeky title number and deliberately cheesy Christmas Time, with my favourite being In the Back Row, a hymn to the hopefuls forever relegated to the role of supporting artiste.

This production, directed by Jemima Levick, isn't so much high energy as nuclear armageddon, a non-stop parade of character-based gags and numbers. The nine-strong cast is constantly zooming behind a mirror to change costume and character, to deliberately comic effect. Chief among them is all-singing, all-dancing firecracker Devin Herbert as Jake, while Celine Rosa Tan hits her laughter notes with ease.

In fact, the whole cast does a fine job - all the more impressive when you know that many of them are also appearing in Sunday in the Park With George a few hours after this show. Go to both for full-on Glee!


MUSICALS AND OPERA
Into the Woods
Greenside
* *
FULL marks for ambition. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's show throwing real human dilemmas at fairy tale characters isn't a cakewalk. The music is rich, the lyrics demanding. It needs a sharp orchestra and actors able to put across emotion and comedy via tongue-twisting lyrics.

Well, the band is good in this production. And Baker's Wife Sarah Baillie has an excellent voice. Director Lorna Baillie (this gang aren't called Opera di Nepotist for nothing!) is a menacing Witch, putting her big numbers across effectively, Cinderella's Prince/Wolf Stephen Richardson sings sweetly and Baker Dylan Lincoln has pleasant tones. Kate Henderson is a cutely comedic Cinderella, though her blonde fright wig as Rapunzel is straight out of Monty Python. Other members of the cast aren't so strong, but they work well as an ensemble. Truth be told, though, the group isn't quite ready for Sondheim.

What they are is terribly endearing. They're having a fantastic time, so you want these Fringe debutantes to get their happy ending.

Avert your eyes, though, when Milky White is on stage ... no panto creature this - with its dead eyes and skeletal frame it's the Fourth Cow of the Apocalypse.


COMEDY
Who Are The Jocks?
Pleasance Dome
* * *
SCOTT Capurro tells the tale of his mother's death, and the effect it's had on him. It's not the most obvious subject for comedy, but there's a universality to the theme which draws the audience in. And San Francisco native Capurro is an accomplished storyteller, likeable and engaging even when he's cursing like a sailor.

There as laughs aplenty as he reveals how relatives reacted to the loss of his mother, and even how a punter tried to strangle him after a recent gig in Wales. Poignancy too - Capurro's lines are commendably well practiced, but you feel their truth.

The show's title relates to the terrible query asked by the Columbine killers when they turned up at school with shotguns. The jocks - high school athletes - were asked to stand up, and they died. Capurro relates this back to his own experiences, but it doesn't quite work as a way to tie the show's threads together.

Gags centred on Madeleine McCann get laughs, even while they feel a tad tired - especially if you've been to his chat show, Scott Capurro's Position ... quite a few lines from this gig turned up in that one (I won't go into detail, as that would get them three outings). And while I don't doubt he wants to shag 'Mussies' in Afghanistan, this line comes across as another in his stated attempts to shock - after so many years on the circuit I'd like to hear this talented comic not try so hard to be the iconoclast.

As Capurro built to his climax, the audience was distracted constantly by chattering bar staff a few feet behind us. With Capurro unwilling to tell them to cut it out - and as the guy on stage, he has the power to shut them up quickly and finally - it was left to audience members to have a go, leading Capurro to turn on them. Which isn't funny.


MUSICALS AND OPERA
A Sentimental Journey: The Story of Doris Day
C, Chambers Street
* * * *
'I KNEW Doris Day before she was a virgin.' So said raconteur Oscar Levant, but it wasn't necessarily an insult - Day herself found her snow white image mildly irksome, as she tells us at the beginning of this musical biography. A cut-down version of Adam Rolston's play, it speeds through the legend's life, from the day Doris Kappelhoff's father left home to her life in Carmel, California today, rescuing dogs away from the spotlight.

Distilled into 80 minutes, there's enough drama to fill a Hollywood movie. She's had four marriages, suffered domestic violence, was injured in a car smash on the railway track and son Terry Melcher narrowly missed being murdered by the Charles Manson's gang ... if this is a sentimental journey, it's also an ironic one.

It's Melcher who narrates the story, in which Sally Hughes is Doris Day incarnate. Her vocal impersonation is spot-on, and she looks and moves like Day in a series of covetable gowns, making it easy to settle into the story. The songs are shared between Hughes and Conor Michael Sheridan as Terry, along with Elizabeth Elvin, Nick Waring and Thomas Sellwood as mother, husbands, boyfriends and Frank Sinatra. The ensemble meshes beautifully whether the mood is romance, comedy or, or course, sentiment. All the classics are here, from the title song through Que Sera Sera and a rootin' tootin' Deadwood Stage, accompanied by Jo Stewart's tight band.

The scenery is simple - a series of adaptable boxes, and works well enough, but it would have been nice had the hard-working stagehand not appeared every five minutes to push a 'chair' forward or back - just get the cast to kick it forward!

But that's a quibble. You'll likely be so drawn in by this well-conceived, nicely executed show that the Sentimental Journey won't prove a bumpy ride.


MUSICALS AND OPERA
Sweet Charity
C, Chambers Street
* *
THERE'S nothing wrong with reimagining Sweet Charity as the story of a gay man. You get hopeless optimists in all areas of life, and who knows, a gay Charity Hope Valentine might bring something new to the show.

Sadly, it doesn't. Representing the Fandango Club with a public toilets set makes no sense, and using dirty urinals as the backdrop for every scene sends out the message that it's not just Charity's sterotype-filled workplace that's sleazy, it's the entire world.

I'm used to cuts in Fringe shows to accommodate reduced playing times, but when the songs push the story along, as those of Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields do, snips need to be careful. Don't, for example, reprise the enjoyable yet inessential Baby, Dream Your Dream while denying Charity her closing number; Northern Theatre Company's production simply peters out on a sad note, with the audience not realising it's over.

Plus, staging The Rhythm of Life in a sauna random trannie Charity's taken Oscar to, rather than his cult meeting, makes it irrelevant to the story. But if you want to watch young lads dance awkwardly in posing pouches - and less - while the lyric is undersold, the number is unmissable.

Charity works hard and puts his songs across with a sincerity that is indeed sweet. Oscar loses his tunes, but smart acting makes the nervous no-hoper likeable. And Fandango girls Helene and Nickie put in game turns, though their drag makes them seem like Ugly Sisters.

As high concepts go, this Sweet Charity is up there with the best of them. As satisfying theatre, though, it needs work.


MUSICALS AND OPERA
Scene of the Titans
C, Chambers Street
* * *
THERE'S nothing like a classically butch name to give a gay-friendly rugby team the grrr factor, as Edinburgh's Caledonian Thebans know. If the boys come along to this new musical they'll likely be charmed by the story of Northern Ireland's first out Sevens side.

Set up by Terry to impress Colin, a new face at the Kremlin Gay bar, the Titans struggle to find members, a coach and sponsorship.There's a love story, fallings-out and tragedy before the team eventually begin winning games. Towards the end there's some apparently shameful pushing of the emotional buttons, but it turns out the story is true, so fair play to writer Tim Foley.

Foley shows real skill in his characterisations, aided by a sharp cast from from St Andrews' Faulty Productions. Luke Hier as captain Terry and Randy Grab as drag queen manager Sophia lead a talented cast, with everyone gelling to tell the stories.

Less successful are the songs, which range from forgettable to OK. Players do their best with the singing and dancing, but it's the drama and comedy that is this production's strength, selling the idea that gay, straight, it's all great.


COMEDY
Shazia Mirza
Gilded Balloon Teviot
* * * *
TRYING to be helpful while queuing for a Virgin Atlantic flight, Shazia Mirza told the woman in front that the luggage weight limit was 30kg, not 23kg as the baggage handler said. Rather than a thank you or polite acknowledgement, the woman said, weirdly, 'everything comes to he who waits' and called her a 'busybody'

The old-fashioned term informs Mirza's set, motivating some great stories. There are the parents who won't open the door to someone they don't wish to see, even if spotted; the American who wants to know where Mirza - a Brummie - learnt to speak English; and the likely truth of a horrible note left on her car in Los Angeles. Then there's the letter from a 'fan' telling her how to improve the act ...

Mirza's great company, whether she's working through her set or getting to know the audience. Her willingness to go along with a bit of deviation brought some delightfully wacky back and forth banter on the question of just who has presented Points of View.

It all makes for a hilarious hour, a guaranteed memorable show.

By the way, the Virgin Atlantic site says the weight limit IS 23kg. I checked the website. Does that make me a busybody?

COMEDY
Andrew Bird's Village Fete
Gilded Balloon Teviot
* * * *
SOME comics embark on massive arena tours. Not Andrew Bird. He wants to play village halls, inspired by a good cause night he agreed to mount in aid of the local cricket team - so rubbish that they almost qualify as a charity.

And if his source material - the village newsletter - sounds unpromising, in Bird's hands it becomes a Rosetta Stone of comedy, as he translates the most trivial matters into comedy gold.

Fringe custom forces comedians to come up with an overarching theme, persuading them to don string vests or Carmen Miranda turban for the poster, then the show itself comes along and there's nary a reference to such things. Not Bird, though - a village show he promises and a village show he delivers.

A family skiing holiday, the activities of the local 'tree rep', the vicar's editorial ... Bird's storytelling skill squeezes out laughs you could never have imagined were there. And while some communities have race nights and film nights, his Northamptonshire hamlet delights in Moth-Catching Night. Come and learn ...

It's not just Bird's confident oratory that draws you in, it's his personality. He has that sunniness that makes you want to spend time with him, and an easy delivery that's enthusiastic and friendly without going over the edge into cod mateyness.

Bird's going to be a big star, catch him close-up now before he does vanish into one of those arenas.

CABARET
Fascinating Aida
Gilded Balloon Teviot
* * * *
FLIGHTY, yes, but cheap isn't a word you readily associate with Fascinating Aida. For 28 years, in various incarnations, sweet FA have been adding a touch of class to the British cabaret scene. Truth be told, along with Kit and the Widow, they own the area of satirical songs.

And that's where Cheap Flights comes in, as Dillie Keane, Adele Anderson and new member Sarah-Louise Young name a show for their musical tribute to Ryanair, an internet sensation with seven million YouTube hits. A diddle-di-dum delight with verse after verse centring on the likelihood of really getting a flight for 50p, it has the audience roaring.

But it doesn't overshadow the rest of the show, with song after song eliciting titters, chuckles and guffaws aplenty. The hour opens with the typically hilarious Companies Using Nifty Taxation Systems, an ode to Non-Doms. There's a hymn to the usually unsung hobby of dogging, a tribute to Switzerland's one-way holidays for elderly parents and attempts to engage with yoof culture by staying forever young.

A few moments of contemplation are provided by the poignant Goodbye Old Friends, but other than that it's business as usual. Boring takes to task the people who claim there's just nothing to do. Young - also appearing in her own show, Cabaret Whore: More! More! More! - fronts a frightfully filthy number about f***buddies. And there's the return of the Bulgarian Song Cycles, pithy ditties in which topical grenades meet Eastern European musical styles.

Impressive as the fiercely intelligent trio's songs and musicality are, their moves are also worth noting - there's enormous energy on the stage, astounding when you consider that between them FA have been performing at the Fringe for 81 years (Anderson and Keane graciously note that Young halves the average age).

As smutty as they're elegant and tuneful, Fascinating Aida send you out into the night with a massive smile on your face and a spring in your step. Cheap Flights is worth a heck of a lot more than 50p.


COMEDY
Bad Bread: TVTimes
Underbelly, Cowgate
* *
TV. We all watch it, making it good Fringe fodder. The downside of this truth is that the medium's been spoofed many times. Then again, the telly landscape is ever-changing, so a sharp troupe will always have fresh targets.

Postman Pat. Ground Force. The Vicar of Dibley. These are just some of the subjects tackled by the three lads of Bad Bread - not exactly cutting edge. And the 'we want to be spotted by TV producers' set-up' has whiskers on it.

The boys displayed bags of enthusiasm, and two of them showed talent for silly voices, but the gags veer towards the puerile - big breasts, Anne Frank, willies. To be fair, members of the audience, the youngest of any comedy show I've been to this year, laughed, so perhaps it's an age thing. And gender - most of the random guffaws came from young women, screeching at every little gurn of these nice, yet sweary, young men. No nature documentary duck or bee pun was deemed too feeble for a giggle or a whoop.

A lot of the TV links were tenuous, others utterly invisible. One of the latter, though, allowed for a Monopoly sketch which was imaginative and amusing, while an on-topic skit gave us a smart mash-up of the Teletubbies and Reservoir Dogs. And a topical-two-generations-ago take-off of the Frost Report's Class sketch elicited grins.

Bad Bread show sparks of talent, but this show barely reaches the level of a decent student review. If they return with a TVTimes 2 next year, timelier subjects, met with a fresh approach, would be appreciated. Except by the young ladies, who really don't care.