Reviewed today: Brendon Burns & Craig Quartermaine: Race Off, George Egg: DIY Chef, The Girl Who Jumped Off The Hollywood Sign, The Paper Cinema's Macbeth, Queens Of The Blues, Will Seaward's Spooky Midnight Ghost Stories IV.
In fact, this isn't the story of Mary C Brown, although she's referenced here by her original name of Peg Entwistle. Instead, writer/performer Joanne Hartstone plays Evie Edwards, a fictional character who ends up following in Brown's footsteps, as it were. Evie's mother died in childbirth, leaving her father to bring her up alone just as the Depression hits America. Like many before them, they move to Hollywood to seek their fortune. Evie desperately wants to get into the movie business, and gets a job at a studio as a messenger girl. It gives her the perfect opportunity to observe the darker side of Hollywood first hand. Unfortunately, this doesn't stop her from wanting to get deeper into it.
Like Evie, we've all got a fascination for the stories of the classic Hollywood era, and Hartstone does a great job in presenting them in her 70 minute performance. It's an achievement to make Evie's tragedy as gripping as the true stories that weave through her monologue. If anything, it's so gripping that the frequent breaks for songs end up killing the momentum a little bit: I think this could be an even better piece without them. Still, what we've got is a fine example of what Fringe theatre does best, and it's gratifying to see how it's been playing to full houses for the duration of its run.
Last year, one of the best things I saw in Edinburgh was Twist Theatre's Macbeth, which took Shakespeare's plot and brilliantly transposed it to the modern music industry. Halfway through writing that previous sentence, I did a quick search through my site to find the relevant review page, and ended up reminding myself that I've also seen some fine reworkings of Macbeth here in 1990 and 2002. Maybe I should only watch productions of The Scottish Play and nothing else, because it's looking like The Paper Cinema's Macbeth will be one of my highlights of 2017.
It's a simple but rather brilliant idea. Paper Cinema specialise in what could possibly be described as live animation. There's a team of five people on stage: two of them are providing live music and cueing up sound effects, while the other three are moving paper cutouts by hand in front of an array of video cameras. The visuals are mixed into a coherent whole, and projected onto a screen at the back of the stage. With some simple manipulation of lights, and cross-fades between the video sources, it's surprising just how cinematic the whole thing looks.
The BBG is a little worried when she works out the setup on stage, concerned that seeing the people creating the visuals will spoil you in advance for the images that actually end up on screen. For me, it kind of works in the opposite way: you end up constantly flipping your attention between the performers at the front of the stage and the projections at the back, marvelling at the precisely co-ordinated effort of the former and how it leads to the latter. If anything, sometimes there's a little too much for you to watch on stage. The final effect is very similar to the John Ryan animations of my childhood like Captain Pugwash or Sir Prancelot, but with infinitely more visual ambition: and that's before you get to the additional challenge of performing Macbeth without a single line of dialogue. Sometimes that means you have to rely on your prior knowledge of the story to get through some parts of the show. But if you're okay with that, there are some stunning combinations of image and music to be seen here. Paper Cinema have developed Macbeth with the help of Battersea Arts Centre, and it's good to see that the show will be returning there in March 2018: I suspect I'll be dragging a few people along to it when that happens.
I first encountered George Egg a couple of Christmasses ago, at one of Robin Ince and Brian Cox's festive shows at the Bloomsbury Theatre. Thanks to some poor planning on my part, the Pals and I found ourselves in the front row of the stalls, which is always a dangerous place to be for a comedy-based event. But Egg made it completely worth our while: his short set was adapted from his full-length set at the time, which was a demonstration of how you could cook meals on the cheap using only things you could find inside a hotel room. He made pancakes using a couple of inverted steam irons, and at the end passed them around the front row to scoff. Bargain!
Sadly we're a little too slow to make it into the front row for his new show, DIY Chef, but it turns out that he's got a more efficient system for sharing food across a large audience so it doesn't matter too much. The premise for this one is that Egg has been banished from his kitchen on medical advice, and has to stay in his garden shed to stop him from trying any more bizarre cooking experiments. You're ahead of me here, I can tell. Over the course of an hour, he demonstrates how to cook three full meals using only stuff you can find in a shed: poaching eggs with a wallpaper steamer, cutting pasta with a paper shredder, and cooking steak with a blow torch and a shovel. It's part stand-up comedy, part magic act, as the food turns out to be surprisingly edible - the steak had all gone by the time it was my turn, but I can certainly vouch for the excellence of his pasta. There are plenty of other digressions alongside the cooking, as Egg also gives us handy money-saving tips, reads from his poetry, and plugs the heavy metal band he hasn't got around to forming yet (though they already have a t-shirt). It's almost a disappointment afterwards when you go out into the Pleasassembellyballoon complex and find that all the food stalls are using boring old cooking methods, but it doesn't stop me from grabbing a Korean halloumi burger anyway.
What's the statute of limitations on a Brendon Burns show? He usually tries to throw in some sort of surprise at the climax, and then pleads with the audience not to spoil it for anyone else: so how much time has to pass before we can talk about it? For the purposes of this particular discussion, I'm going to say one year. So: last year, the best thing I saw at Edinburgh was Burns' show Dumb White Guy, which went on to tour the UK under the title Black Comedian. I mentioned in my review at the time that Burns was at that time heavily preoccupied with Australia's history of racism towards the Aborigines, and what he could do to close the chasm between them. I was very coy about the show's ending, but here comes the spoiler: Aboriginal comic Craig Quartermaine (who'd been mentioned in a few of Burns' anecdotes earlier in the show) came on to do a terrific ten minute set, and then revealed that he and Burns were going to be touring as a double act across Australia, to see how much it would freak people out.
One year later, that double act makes it back to Edinburgh for a show called Race Off. Given how much I loved last year's collaboration between the two, I was fascinated to hear what had happened to them since then. Unfortunately, we don't get as much of that as I'd like: they're assuming that most of the audience weren't there for the previous show, so far too much of this one involves repeating material from last year. There are some new anecdotes from their Australian tour, but for the most part it feels too much like Black Comedian: The Remix, rejigging familiar stuff rather than coming up with something entirely new. This might just be down to my own familiarity with Burns and Quartermaine's story, of course: it's possible that this may work better for you if you didn't see the show before. (You may also want to cross-reference Race Off with this recent podcast, which suggests that the format has changed quite a bit during the duration of the run.)
You know how it usually works: we go to see Mervyn Stutter early in the week, in the hope that it'll give us a couple of recommendations for shows that we wouldn't have considered otherwise. Last Sunday's Stutter had two highlights for me - Gary Delaney's stand-up, and Nicole Smit's blues songs. By now, of course, we're sufficiently late into the week that free slots are at a premium - at one point today, I consider getting a t-shirt made up with the slogan I'm Going Home Tomorrow, There's No Point In Giving Me Your Fliers. So we reluctantly decide that we'll have to try and catch Delaney next time he's passing through London, and instead plump for Nicole Smit and Queens Of The Blues.
In fact, calling it Nicole Smit's show isn't quite correct. This is just one of ten shows on the Fringe this year involving blues band The Blueswater, performing in various permutations with an assortment of guests. At this specific one, Smit tells the stories and sings the songs of a dozen or so lesser-known female blues singers, including Nina Simone (okay, hardly lesser-known, but she only recorded one blues album) and Wanda Jackson (whose classic Fujiyama Mama topped the Japanese charts for six months, despite the spectacular tastelessness of its central atomic bomb metaphor, which is presumably why Frank Chickens enjoyed covering it as well). Having already seen Smit do a couple of these numbers on Sunday, it's no surprise at how well she belts them out: the big surprise is The Blueswater, who've expanded since Stutter from a three-piece to a six-piece. The addition of drums and a couple of guitars fills out the sound enormously, and makes for a ferociously entertaining hour of music. Thanks, Merv.
We grab an excellent late dinner at Mother India Cafe, and then meet up with most of the rest of the Pals for our final show of the day: and like George Egg, it's a chance to see a full-length performance from someone we've only previously encountered in a short slot on a mixed bill. I mentioned yesterday how The BBG and I are occasional visitors to the Good Ship comedy club in Kilburn: well, they had a special show for Halloween last year with Andrew O'Neill headlining (who else?) and a spectacular appearance by Will Seaward in support. I have to admit I was a wee bit drunk by the time Seaward came on stage, and have an actual physical sense memory of giggling constantly at his overripe ghost stories, rather than remembering any of the individual lines.
He's here at Edinburgh in a perfect midnight slot, with a show called Will Seaward's Spooky Midnight Ghost Stories IV, which suggests that we've caught up with him a little bit late. If you've not seen him before, it takes a bit of time to tune into his wavelength: gloriously daft tales of terror, told in a booming voice that's reminiscent of Brian Blessed with all of the self-doubt removed. It's the mixture of surrealism and overconfidence that makes him so hilarious, and probably explains why the extended story of the first half is the best part of the show: when he's performing a seance with audience members or reading a poem, the energy level drops below those dizzy heights, and a drop in energy isn't really what you want this late at night. Still, as one of the few late shows on the Fringe that doesn't require you to leave your brain in the cloakroom, you have to applaud it.