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 The Theatreguide.London Reviews


The several simultaneous events that make up 'The Edinburgh Festival' - the International Festival, the Fringe, the Comedy Festival, etc. - bring thousands of shows and performers to the Scottish capital each August. No one can see more than a fraction of what's on offer, but with our experienced reviewing team we got to 150 of  the best.

Virtually all of these shows will tour after Edinburgh, and many will come to London, making the Festival a unique preview of the year. 

We give star ratings in Edinburgh, since festival goers have shown a preference for such shorthand guides. Ratings range from Five Stars (A Must-See) down to One Star (Demand your money and an hour of your life back), though we urge you to look past the stars to read the accompanying review.

Since serendipity is one of the delights of the Festival, we list all our reviews together so you can browse and perhaps discover something beyond what you were looking for. This list is divided into two pages, in alphabetical order (soloists by last name), with A-L on this page and M-Z on another.

Scroll down this page for our review of

Ablutions, Amy G, And This Is My Friend Mr Laurel, The Art of Falling Apart, An Audience With Shurl, Austentatious, Autumn Fallin', be-dom, Before Us, Belfast Boy, Beowulf The Blockbuster, Bill Clinton Hercules, Blofeld and Baxter, Bond, Brazouka, Broke, 

Cambridge Footlights, The Canon, The Canterbury Crawl, The Capone Trilogy - Loki, The Capone Trilogy - Lucifer, The Capone Trilogy - Vendici, Captain Amazing, The Carousel,

Casting The Runes, Chef, The Christeene Machine, Cirque Tsuki, Civil Rogues, Claustrophobia, The Collector, Ctrl+Alt+Delete, Cuckooed, Cutting Off Kate Bush,

Dalloway, Dead To Me, Death Shall Have No Dominion, The Devil Without, Donald Robertson Is Not A Stand-Up Comedian, Dr Longitude's Marvelous Imaginary Menagerie, The Duel, Durham Revue, 

Eric and Little Ern, Ernest, Ernest And The Pale Moon, Et Tu Elvie, An Evening With Dementia, Every Brilliant Thing, An Extraordinary Light, 50 Shades The Musical, Tim Fitzhigham, The Flood, Freak, Front,

Gagging For It, A Game Of Soldiers, God's Own Country, Goodbye Gunther, The Great Gatsby, Hancock's Last Half Hour, Ben Hart, He Had Hairy Hands, The Height Of The Eiffel Tower, Horizontal Collaboration, The Horror The Horror, Hot Cat, The Human Voice, Hyde And Seek, 

I Killed Rasputin, Icarus, In The Surface Of A Bubble, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote, Janis Joplin, Jim,  Julie Burchill, Juvenalia, Keeping Up With The Joans, Lach's Antihoot, Lady Rizo, Letters Home, Light, Live Forever, Lungs,

Go to second M-Z Edinburgh page.

Return to Theatreguide.London Home Page

Ablutions   Assembly Roxy       ***
FellSwoop Theatre's adaptation of Patrick deWitt's 2012 novel shifts its focus and its tone significantly but presents the new version with a warmth and inventiveness that are wholly satisfying. The novel is largely devoted to and amused by the quirky customers in a cheap Los Angeles bar, while the play is more interested in the bartender himself, and finds more sad drama than comedy in his story. He hates his job, his boss, his co-workers, his customers and of course himself. The play takes him through losing job and wife, escaping on a road trip that just ends back where it began, and then setting off once again with no clear goal but away. We've shifted into Charles Bukowski territory here, where a happy ending amounts to being not too much worse off than you were at the beginning. But director Bertrand Lesca and the company invest the telling with a warmth and charity toward the characters and a theatrical inventiveness that keep the tone from ever being too dark. With Eoin Slattery drawing us toward sympathy for the bartender, a trio of musician-singers play quietly in the background, keeping the tone gentle and forgiving, and also take turns stepping forward to play a half-dozen secondary characters each.  Gerald Berkowitz

Amy G - Entershamement   Underbelly      ****
On a drizzly Edinburgh Sunday night in an unprepossessing space and fighting a cold, Amy G still raised the roof. The self-confessed ‘revolutionary cabaret comedienne’ revisits the festival after a ten-year absence, busy as she’s been not only in her native America but also across Europe. So, a big hand for this slick yet subversively riotous show that’s all about her, a (near) naked, intimate confessional of who Amy G is right now. So where to start – well, gloriously bizarre costume change numbers for a start, climbing though the audience in full boa and sequins regalia for another. And then there’s the I (Who Have Nothing) routine which somehow becomes a reverse breast-enhancer fest, plus clown rollerskating that somehow makes sense. She doesn’t end the show on a song, but a particular trick involving a kazoo and her vagina which got her booted off a German TV talent show. And under all the slapstick and throwaway quips lies the timebomb of a cleverly constructed persona who hits all the right cabaret buttons but gets you thinking in unexpected ways. Visual, verbal, vocal, Amy Gordon does it all. Aided by director John-Stuart Fauquet and Gag Reflex’s soundtrack, she fires on so many cylinders that you hanker after seeing the full extravaganza – here it was just the festival reduced version – experiencing her sing for an hour, do the shtick for another hour, and then reprise it all over again.   Nick Awde

And This Is My Friend Mr. Laurel   Pleasance      ****
Thanks to series such as Hi-de-Hi! And You Rang M’Lord, Jeffrey Holland has the comic credentials and the hangdog features that make him perfect to take on the role of Stan Laurel. In this solo homage to the English half of Laurel and Hardy, he plays it straight with more than a few laughs to create an engrossing portrait of Ulverstone’s greatest son. Here the set-up is a Californian hospital where Laurel is visiting Hardy who has had a stroke and failing fast. Talking to Hardy in his ward bed, Laurel finds himself reminiscing on the ups and downs of their past, seeking comfort for them both in their ability to take any challenge in their stride. There’s a disastrous film in France, a tour of a grim post-war UK, battles with the studio bosses, even being lured into a meeting with Bernard Delfont for the US This Is Your Life and bemoaning the fact that they wouldn’t get paid for it. He doesn’t shirk from their personal lives, and so details his seven marriages while worrying about Hardy’s weakness for the horses. Gail Louw and Jeffrey Holland have written a gentle script that concentrates on the showbiz marriage of the comedians rather than the comic process itself – a wise move because it allows Holland to show the working process of their inspired partnership. This also ensures that any comic material contrasts nicely and is all the more effective for it. When Holland regularly breaks into the monologue by popping on a bowler to uncannily become Laurel’s screen alter ego Stan, enacting classic yet now poignant routines, the effect is spellbinding and magically, timelessly funny. Nick Awde

The Art Of Falling Apart   Pleasance      ***
A businessman has a really, really bad day. A co-worker freaks out, an ATM eats his card, he has a fight with his girlfriend and, a few more mishaps later, he finds himself on a drug-fuelled night of clubbing and general debauchery that seems to destroy his entire life. Though there has been a comic tone to much of this, and the entertaining inventiveness of having one actor play everyone he meets, Robert Farquhar's script up to this point resembles David Mamet's Edmond, the dark adventure of a man choosing oblivion through debasement. That this play takes a different turn actually comes as a bit of a surprise, though most will be pleased and satisfied by its resolution. Performers Tim Lynskey and Matt Rutter have made a speciality of this theatrical structure, with one playing an Everyman and the other Everyone Else, and are masters of the dizzyingly quick changes and comic reactions. Though the tone of this play moves further into darkness than audiences might expect, the general fun of the inventiveness and the string of eccentric characters met along the way guarantee that the overall impression is light and entertaining.   Gerald Berkowitz

An Audience With Shurl   Spotlites@The |Merchants' Hall     ***
Wrapped up in a faded dressing gown, 58-year-old Shurl greets the audience as they enter, introducing herself shyly. She disarmingly asks us if she looks good for her age, wonders whether we have heard of the small town she’s from in the Welsh Valleys. She describes growing up there, raised in her grandmother’s rented miner’s cottage, filled with her family and ‘dead people’ – the spiritual guides that half the old folk in town seem to believe in. And then she tells us her childhood discovery from TV variety show Sunday Night at the Palladium that Shirley Bassey has the power to “make everything alright. Alternately dippy and dark, Shurl’s tale takes us from childhood to adulthood, in a mental as well as physical transition that creeps up on us with such normality that it comes as a shock to suddenly realise that we are chuckling at the reminiscences of a loner whose patriotic obsession with Bassey has consumed her entire life. Sue Bevan has created a solo show where there is the now traditional triple whammy of writer/director/performer being the same person. In terms of script, this is a compelling, well-written, funny-sad story of a woman’s journey through a life that perhaps never had a meaning – and there’s a genuine surprise at the end. On the interpretation side, however, Bevan needs to bring in a director to notch things up. She certainly has the chops to personify Shurl’s emotional journey, and is clearly inventive in this, but delivery and movement sometimes falter and often lag, which can be a distraction. With a director sensitive to the subject matter and its audience, this show easily merits playing to larger venues.  Nick Awde

Austentatious   Pleasance Dome     ****
A Fringe perennial, this improvisation on themes from Jane Austen is a proven crowd-pleaser. Though by its very nature an improv show is likely to be uneven, the company know their raw material and have played around with it long enough to be able to deliver. Things begin in the ticket queue, as audience members are asked to suggest titles for lost Jane Austen novels, and one is drawn out of a hat to be the basis for today's hour. I forget the exact title on this occasion, but it wound up having something to do with a dealer in addictive buns, his virtuous daughter forced into the bun trade, and a benevolent noblewoman willing to save her from that fate worse than death. It didn't have a whole lot to do with Jane Austen, but a bunch of attractive performers in Regency costume entertainingly improvised their way into corners and then generally found their way out again. I suspect that there was a certain amount of recycling of old gags and characterisations, but the jokes are good, and the company's rapport with the audience is strong enough that the stumbles and what-do-I-say-now moments are as much fun as the bits of inspired invention. You don't really have to know your pride from your prejudice to enjoy this light and delightful show.  Gerald Berkowitz

Autumn Fallin'   Greenside@Nicholson Square     ***
Armed with acoustic guitar and a wistful smile, Jamie sings of falling in love in the Big Apple, where the changing of the seasons reflects her changing fortunes. What looks on the surface to be a song cycle morphs into a fully fledged if minimal musical thanks to the scenes and living tableaux enacted by wordless performers. Mime and simple props help to create a park in autumn strewn with torn-up paper leaves, commuters huddled on the subway, winos and lovers vying for the park benches – all bringing to life Jamie’s musings on life with and without her ex. Drawn from songs by New York anti-folk singer-songwriter Jaymay, the songs are finely crafted, delivered by Sophie Gore’s full yet winsome voice. However a few numbers tend to lack highs and lows dynamically and so sound samey, losing the desired emotional impact. The songs that do impress are those that break out of Suzanne Vega territory and play with other genres – the title number Autumn Fallin’ is simultaneously sweet and soaring, while the addition of choruses from the otherwise silent cast add harmony layers to the deliciously catchy See Green, See Blue. Director Anton Benson ensures that this young cast of nine and band of six make good use of the space, and he shares out vocal duties across the two groups to good effect in this ambitiously conceived show that delights with its simplicity.  Nick Awde

be-dom   Underbelly Bristo Square     ***
A found-object drumming show along the lines of Stomp, the Portuguese sextet be-dom bring high energy, personality and a strong audience connection to what is ultimately a very limited act that seems stretched and repetitive even at 45 minutes. The six men drum on all sorts of things other than drums and on drums disguised as all sorts of other things, alternating with bits of rhythmic hand-clapping, finger-snapping and foot-stomping. There are several audience-involvement sequences, generally of the clap-in-response-to-our-claps sort, that particularly delight the children, especially when they get complicated and the kids can outdo their parents. A finale is performed in the dark with the drummers wearing illuminated hats and overalls that make them look like alien jellyfish. That bit of technology, along with an occasional backing track and a briefly used projection screen, is the only real concession to being in a theatre, and the act, perhaps best seen in shorter excerpts rather than trying to sustain an entire show, retains the attractively informal air of their roots as street entertainers.  Gerald Berkowitz

Before Us   Underbelly     **
For this self-written performance piece Australian Stuart Bowden takes on the persona of an awkward, inept and possibly mentally challenged man trying to put on a show, and invites the audience to laugh at (not with) his disability and ineptness. The tale the man tries to tell is of the last member of an all-but-extinct species who is herself awkward and inept and who has a string of social misadventures before dying. Occasionally accompanying himself with deliberate clumsiness on a Casio keyboard, the man warbles weak little songs, attempts awkward dances, urges the audience to hold hands or join in, and eventually brings them all onstage to follow his directions and mock-die along with the creature, all generating the kind of cruel laughter that one would expect to be followed by guilty embarrassment. The built-in lack of polish and Bowden's own inclination to improvise around the edges of his script allow for repeated breaking of the frame, not always successfully, as when he messes up the keyboard programming or when sound leaks in from another playing space and he's momentarily thrown by both problems. At least one star in this rating is there to acknowledge that the audience did enjoy laughing at the damaged narrator and did come onstage and follow his demands, and that only a few walked out during the show.  Gerald Berkowitz

Belfast Boy   Spotlites@The Merchants' Hall     *****
It’s a simple setup storywise: a man has been referred to a psychologist by his GP because he has trouble sleeping. It’s even simpler stagewise: one chair, one bare stage. Prepare yourself then to plunge depth after depth into Martin’s life as each routine question triggers a deluge of memories. Prepare yourself also for a stunning portrayal from Declan Perring who somehow squeezes a stadium-sized performance into this tiny basement space. Martin is a cheeky chap, a bit drug-battered and possibly we’d keep an eye on the silverware when he’s around, but the more he awkwardly rambles about being in his first psychologist’s session, the more we warm to him. When he is told that going off on tangents is good, he takes the advice onboard and starts to recount his wayward family, how the troubles drove them out from Belfast to Birmingham – and thence to party culture, drugs and his sexuality. But just when you think that’s it, there’s nothing worse, then there’s even worse. And yet, testament to the power of Kat Woods’ unsentimental script, Martin at no point asks for pity. Even when he is apologising, so, so wrongly, for having created all these tragic situations, the conflict is always on for us: do we rush to hold him tight, or find the bastards and lynch them?  Based on a real life story, director/writer Kat Woods has created the launchpad and tight dynamics for Perring’s remarkable physicality, fuelled by the cadences of the dialogue, to create a sustained, emotional rollercoaster that keeps you guessing right up to the end as to where it’ll go next.  Nick Awde

Beowulf:The Blockbuster   Pleasance     *****
A boy is negotiating with his father. If his dad wants to tell him the story of Beowulf, then he’d better do it using the style and characters of Hollywood blockbusters. Dad has a think, then agrees… Laced with dry Irish wit and the sadness of why they’re here, this then is the multi-layered tale of a boy raised by his builder dad in 80s Ireland, when single-parenting was an oddity to say the least. At this point it’s best to let you discover the story yourself as it unravels and to enjoy the sheer skill of it all. What I can say is that Beowulf speaks like Sean Connery and Grendel has the claws of Freddy Krueger. In a virtuoso physical performance, Bryan Burroughs is on the physical prowl throughout, but this he does without any in-yer-face arrogance or physical gimmickry, instead welcoming the audience to join him on his characters’ journeys. Especially interesting is the way he keeps the plot’s tension beating under whatever character he plays, that unobtrusive, detailed movement adding extra dimensions to the spoken humour and pathos. And, obviously, the fact that he has written a ripping script is also of great help. As the penultimate scene played out, eyes were dabbed and there was a prescience that this play’s ability to touch so many on so many levels would end in a standing ovation – which it did.  Nick Awde

Bill Clinton - Hercules   Assembly     ***
Written by Rachel Mariner with director Guy Masterson, this hour in the company of the former US President is at its best when offering insights into the man's personality and values, weakest when allowing him to lecture on politics or economics or argue from partisan positions. In the convention of the genre Mariner has Clinton take us through his life and career, touching on both accomplishments and failures, offering his explanations and justifications, and yes, fudging a bit on his sexual indiscretions. The title alludes to Clinton's known admiration for Seamus Heaney's The Cure At Troy, which the playwright has him describe, explaining how its plot and characters offered him ways of looking at and dealing with various crises. Another insight lies in the realisation that fatherless boys look for heroes, and he was of the generation whose heroes were John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Actor Bob Paisley bears a passing physical resemblance to Clinton, and it takes little more than the Arkansas accent to make for a very convincing portrayal with much of the real man's charm and charisma. But occasional forays into dry textbook explanations or passionate outbursts over things that are ancient history to the audience, along with a few rhythm-breaking memory lapses by the actor, drag the piece down, and ten or fifteen minutes' trimming could only help.  Gerald Berkowitz

Blofeld and Baxter - Memories of a Test Match Special   Pleasance Dome     ****

One of the joys of the Edinburgh Fringe is that it embraces anything and everything. While students acting badly in terrible plays are as common as major theatrical discoveries or hilarious stand-ups, there is also room for something completely different. Peter Baxter and the newly-married Henry Blofeld may now both be beyond retirement age but are still pin-up idols for cricket fans of a certain age (in fact across about a 50 year range). They attract a different audience from most fare at Pleasance but duly deliver an utterly charming hour plus reminiscing about the good old days. Their chatter is more scripted than it looks, as they burble happily away about the good old days of Brian Johnston and John Arlott but also deliver a number of jokes that should be the envy of tyro comedians who get nowhere near as many laughs. Visitors know what to expect, a series of humorous stories mainly drawn from TMS's heyday, but the 2014 set will still give great pleasure as well as selling a good number of copies of their most recent books and some specially created coffee mugs. Philip Fisher

Bond   Zoo     ***
Gavin Robertson's one-man spoof of the Bond films is an uneven hour, brilliant when he gets it right, generic and predictable when he's coasting. Except for a brief touch of Scottish accent near the end, Robertson makes no attempt to imitate any of the Bond actors. His subject is essence-of-Bond, and he's at his best when capturing and playing with elements of the overall myth, rather than reminding us of specific scenes from specific films. Inevitably he opens with the gunshot-at-the-camera bit, but then Robertson manages a perfect embodiment in mime of the girls-and-guns title sequences. Of course the villain will have a cat, but what Robertson does with it in a (literally) throw-away moment is original and hilarious. Moneypenny is there, a bit more single-entendre than usual, and M, and dottering old Q, and a girl with a funny name, and a plot that doesn't make very much sense. But Robertson also spreads his net wider, with sequences less James Bond than Die Hard or Mission Impossible or Pink Panther (and with music to match), and at times this threatens to become an unfocused all-purpose generic action film parody. Never less than amusing, it's best when most Bond.
 Gerald Berkowitz

Brazouka   Assembly     ****
Braz Dos Santos takes to the stage with the cry “Let me show you secret Brazil!” and promptly leaps into a 75-minute journey though through a dazzling kaleidoscope of Brazilian-inspired dance and music. The making of the show has its own story with writer Pamela Stephenson-Connolly and choreographer Arlene Phillips joining forces to showcase Dos Santos’s life as the champion (along with group Kaoma) of lambazouk, i.e. the dance phenomenon lambada and its associated music zouk. As Dos Santos tells how he rose from humble fisherman to lambada supremo and club host in Europe, an unusual choice of songs provides the soundtrack – numbers like Get Lucky and Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough rub shoulders with Catalani, Philip Glass, Santana and Gil Semedo originals, and how could there not be Lambada and its more recent offshoot On the Floor? The routines are constantly inventive and whirl from solo to ensemble with every combination in between, often within the same number. Twirling couples in airline blue segue into a more elemental duet into a chorus line complete with footballs. To be honest, this is not the tightest of dancing but the ensemble has enough infectious energy that they could do no wrong with this packed Assembly Hall. Since this is a magnificent celebration of music and dance, there isn’t admittedly much room for Stephenson-Connolly to squeeze in more than a framework in terms of words, but she ensures that Dos Santos convinces as the central narrator and allows his larger than life personality to shine through. The nature of the show, therefore, lands mainly in Phillips’ hands and rarely will you have the chance to witness such genius in filling a small stage with 16 performers and making it look like Wembley.   Nick Awde

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Broke   Pleasance Dome     ***
Following their usual mode, The Paper Birds build their current show on extensive research and interviews, incorporating the verbatim responses into a theatrically imaginative presentation. The subject here is living with debt, both personal and national. Some people feel bad, some borrow and charge guiltlessly, some just try to get by. We see the embarrassment of not having enough cash at the supermarket till, the matter-of-factness of a pawnshop, the humiliation of a food bank. The voice of a student who racked up £20,000 in credit card debt until mummy bailed her out is heard alongside a single mother who dreads Christmas and dreams of a day when she can give into her child's plea for a sweetie without first computing the cost. Punctuating the individual stories are explanations of how we got here – Thatcher's economic theories voiced by sock puppets, a bank interview as Deal Or No Deal, the credit crunch as a children's story might tell it. It is clear that the three writer-performers of this piece – Jemma McDonnell, Kylie Walsh and Shane Durrant – have their hearts in the right place, but their voices are too soft, and the material they have calls out for more anger than this safe and gentle piece offers.  Gerald Berkowitz

Cambridge Footlights: Real Feelings   Pleasance Dome     ****
If you're keeping score, Cambridge totally trounces Oxford in the revue stakes this year, with a collection of sketches that are almost uninterruptedly inventive, clever and laugh-out-loud funny. A string of quickies hit their punchlines and wisely stop rather than stretching a good joke too thin, and longer bits earn their length by maintaining the energy level. A sketch literally translated from the French offers the audience the respect of assuming they'll get it, as does the concept of Existentialists on strike. The meet-the-audience sequence doesn't quite work, and a sketch about Andy Sirkis may go on a bit too long, but the restaurant, chameleon and talking-in-unison bits are silly enough to carry the show. One of the best Cambridge revues in years, and the one for other university groups to measure themselves against this year.   Gerald Berkowitz

The Canon - A Literary Revue   C Too     *****
Back in the fabled golden age, undergraduate revues were created by people who had actually read things and offered their audiences the courtesy of assuming they were literate too. Now from a Cambridge group comes one of the cleverest and most erudite revues since at least the days of Fry and Laurie. Every sketch is built on literary references and every one works, largely because the creators have pitched the level exactly right, not to obscure works only English postgrads would know, but to authors and titles any modestly educated person will recognise. And so we get Dickens demonstrating his mastery of giving the people what they want by writing a cookbook featuring Barnaby Fudge, George Orwell on a TV chat show surprised that anyone sees political metaphors in his children's book Animal Farm, and Virginia Woolf property hunting. Who really wrote the Bronte novels, what is the real story behind Frankenstein, and what kind of chocolate factory boss is Charlie likely to become? The writer-performers' student roots are exposed in a string of horribly accurate sketches about the idiocy English lecturers are likely to spout in tutorials that are alone worth the price of a ticket. O K, maybe one of those stars comes from my delight at finally encountering a revue that is both intelligent and funny. But The Canon is very intelligent and very funny.  Gerald Berkowitz

The Canterbury Crawl   Space on the Royal Mile     ****
A half-dozen guys on a pub crawl decide to fill the travelling time with stories, and suddenly we're in a twenty-first century version of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. With a lot of inventiveness – no director is credited, but as these are sixth-form students at Warminster School, we can intuit the hands of both English and Drama teachers – they present truncated and appropriately mangled versions of the Knight's, Pardoner's and Wife of Bath's Tales. The guys are personable, the direction is tight and polished, the physical theatre elements (i.e. a lot of mugging and pratfalls) are funny, and the clash of modern sensibilities and old tales, while it occasionally grates (Go easy on the attempts at rhymed couplets, English teacher), just as often produces surprise bits of whimsy and comedy. It runs out of steam and coherence toward the end, but then so does Chaucer. Who knows – the students may even have learned something from the exercise, and certainly audiences get an hour of good dirty fun.  Gerald Berkowitz

The Capone Trilogy - Loki   C Nova     ****
The first of three plays by Jamie Wilkes set in a mythical time and place called 1920s Chicago is a fast-moving black comedy that revels in its inventive use and abuse of conventions and clichés. A showgirl is taken on a flashback journey by two avenging angels in the forms of minor hoodlums who want her to recognise that she's done A Bad Thing. What follows is a comic abundance of Bad Things including two murdered boyfriends, a dead nun, Al Capone's niece and a pair of starlet-struck cops. All but the girl herself are played by the same two actors, sometimes just as offstage voices, and much of the fun comes from the quick changes and instant characterisations by David Calvito and Oliver Tilney, and from Suzie Preece's capturing of the floosie's reactions to the head-spinning activity. An immersive set design by director Jethro Compton places the audience in a convincingly seedy hotel room while providing secret escape routes for the actors who repeatedly disappear from one spot to reappear instantly someplace else as someone else. Stretched just a bit beyond the optimum length for a joke and inevitably not all at the same high energy and invention level, this is still the most successful of the trilogy.  Gerald Berkowitz

The Capone Trilogy - Lucifer   C Nova     ***
The second of Jamie Wilkes' plays set in American gangsterland is much darker than the farcical first, a serious drama with implied comment on the fragility of the American Dream. With Al Capone in prison, his deputy tries to keep the criminal organisation operating while retaining the low profile of being just a lieutenant and the respectability and normal home life of an ordinary businessman. But that's impossible when intimidation, corruption and murder are the daily tools of one's trade, and the man's control over his business, his public image, his friendships and even his marriage begins to unravel. The playwright's attempt to show all facets of the character's life collapsing at the same time keeps the play from having a clear focus and forward movement, and actor David Calvito seems more to be putting out a string of separate brush fires than being drawn to an all-encompassing doom. Suzie Preece as the wife who begins to rebel against being compartmentalised and Oliver Tilney as policeman cousin who can't keep job and family separate are both relegated to distinct episodes rather than seeming part of a snowballing whole. Lucifer is more ambitious than the comic Loki, but less successful in achieving its ambitions.  Gerald Berkowitz

The Capone Trilogy - Vendici   C Nova     ***
Jamie Wilkes' third play about the American underworld of movie and myth makes clear that this is less a trilogy than variations on a theme, the gangster story now told as an uneasy blend of Jacobean tragedy and film noir. Set a decade or so after the others, when Chicago's criminal organisation had been displaced by a regime of corrupt police, Vendici shows one honest cop driven to macabre revenge against his former partner for an unspeakable crime in their past. It is not just the avenger's name and the grand guignol elements in the revenge that recall Middleton's 1606 Revenger's Tragedy, but the sense of a world so thoroughly corrupt that nothing seems unimaginable or even especially horrible, and a sense of justice is indistinguishable from madness. At the same time, the lone honourable man on a quest is the stuff of film noir, an image further evoked by the protagonist's recorded thoughts and narration. Both Jacobean tragedy and film noir are forms that tread perilously close to self-parody, and Wilkes' mix of the two is sometimes hard to take seriously. Oliver Tilney has difficulty individualising the familiar character, with David Calvito as the bad guy and Suzie Preece as the inevitable gun moll with her own agenda also unable to rise much beyond stock figures.  Gerald Berkowitz

Captain Amazing   King's Hall      (reviewed in London)   ***
When you've got a dead-end job, a failing marriage and a sick child, a red cape and its accompanying superpowers can be very alluring. Alistair McDowall's one-hour monologue, here engagingly performed by Mark Weinman, presents one of life's designated losers, who reaches for some comfort in imagined adventures as a superhero. But not only does real life have a way of constantly breaking in, but the fantasies aren't all they're meant to be – Batman and Superman aren't very friendly, and Evilman confuses him by being nice – and sometimes it's difficult to keep the two worlds separate in his mind. Backed by deliberately childlike drawings by Rebecca Glover that evoke both the comic nature and the essential innocence of the man's fantasies, Weinman not only narrates and depicts the losing struggle against despair but plays both sides in several conversations, most comically when Captain Amazing argues with Batman over which is the more super hero, most touchingly when his young daughter tries to retain her faith in Daddy's specialness. It is a small but successfully realised piece, quietly sad and comic in equal proportions. Gerald Berkowitz

The Carousel   Traverse     **
In the second part of a trilogy about a woman's journey to self-discovery – the first, The List, was seen in Edinburgh in 2012 – Canadian playwright Jennifer Tremblay explores the conflict and support provided by the simultaneous roles of granddaughter, daughter and mother. Forced to leave her own sons temporarily to tend her dying mother, the woman's thoughts go further back, to her mother's mother, and her mother's relationship with her. If leaving her own boys feels so wrong, how could her grandmother have exiled her daughter to boarding school? Which role has a stronger claim on her now, that of mother or daughter? And what of the men who seem to have a powerful hold over all of them even as they repeatedly fail them? Maureen Beattie plays all the characters, often in real or imagined conversations with each other, and is not always successful in differentiating among them, as perhaps she is not meant to, continuity and interchangeability of experience being part of the playwright's vision. But in her hands and director Muriel Romanes' the three generations of women do not enrich, clarify or resonate with each other, their stories remaining separate and the narrative disconnected and episodic.   Gerald Berkowitz

Casting The Runes   Space On The Mile     ***
This adaptation of M. R. James's short story makes for an entertainingly spooky hour without ever rising above the genre. A lecturer and debunker of fake mediums and other pseudoscience has offended a writer on alchemy and now finds himself receiving veiled threats in the form of disappearing signs and ominously changing pictures. A young woman (changed from a man in the story) warns him that her brother angered the same mysterious man and died under strange circumstances. Can the odd alchemist really have murderous mystic powers? Can his own weapons be turned against him? Noel Byrne plays the sceptic and Antonia Christophers the woman and everyone else, sometimes too broadly to keep this short play from wandering close to self-parody, and there are more plot holes in the adaptation than they can really get away with. But keep your expectations modest and a few legitimate chills will come your way.  Gerald Berkowitz

Chef   Underbelly     *****
Sabrina Mahfouz's monologue play, inspired by interviews with an actual chef, combines the true cook's passionate love of food with a dark and gritty story, reminding us that beauty and ugliness can live side by side even if they are constantly struggling to defeat each other. Her chef is a girl of the streets, rescued from a life of petty crime and worse by her love of cooking. We soon realise, before it is explicitly spelled out, that she is speaking to us from prison, where a crime she unconvincingly denies has left her, and where she uses her chef's job as a way to keep herself from despair. Accounts of her violence-filled past and present alternate with lyrical paeans to simple food simply prepared, the two bound together by Mahfouz's richly poetic language and the earnest and fully inhabited performance of Jade Anouka. There are some writers whose poetic language can give you a contact high, and Mahfouz's words flowing passionately from Anouka fill you and surround you like the aromas of great cooking.  Gerald Berkowitz

Christeene: The Christeene Machine   Underbelly     ****
All the way from Austin, Texas, the much-heralded queen of white techno trash Christeene is in town to get the festival’s juices going. Be warned, at the Belly Dancer space it’s a stand-up gig and a really low stage. Which is fair enough because, although you can’t actually see much, you’ll probably not want to sit down because: (a) the songs are eminently danceable, and (b) you can more easily sidestep unidentified liquids shooting your way from the stage. Sandwiched between a slew of hard-pumping numbers with mostly funny but unrepeatable lyrics – Fix My Dick a notable highlight – Christeene berates, cajoles and exhorts her delighted audience. There is copious booty shaking, profanity, bad hair, sweat, more booty shaking, cadging drinks off the unwary crowd, and sexually charged punch-ups with her Backup Boyz T-Gravel and C-Baby. The latter two are anything but background dancers. Towering over Christeene, boy does this hi-NRG duo work hard, sashaying off for regular costume changes (on what are admittedly severely under-clad bodies) from gimp minimalism to parachute gowns and Marigolds. As a self confessed ‘drag terrorist’, Paul Soileau’s creation is influenced by the likes of Jayne County – i.e. our attitudes are to be challenged. The problem on this side of the Atlantic is the trashy side emerges more as schlocky parody than satire, thus losing that sense of real challenge and danger posed by the Divine David and David Hoyle’s subsequent reincarnations. Still, this has to be one of the top tickets in town.   Nick Awde 

Cirque Tsuki      C Chambers Street     ***
Roll on up for all the phantoms of the circus! This intriguing ghost story plays out in an immersive set that also hosts two other ImmerCity shows this Edinburgh – Birthday and Feast. Here, in Parade, there’s variety on the bill where modern audience interaction and traditional storytelling meet in this inventive blend of genres. As the travelling circusfolk bid us welcome into their space you sense a dark edge to the expected cheeriness. They explain they are playing a game of sharing ghostly experiences, blowing out one of a hundred candles as a tale ends. When the last candle is blown out for the last tale they know something eventful will transpire. A fact that may well bode ill for resident acts Zanagi (Owen Templeton) and Tiffin (Millicent Wilkie), whose own tangled lives are revealed to be that final fateful episode. What begins in Rosanna Mallinson’s carefully crafted script as a series of setpieces neatly expands into full-blooded drama, in which this hardworking cast multi-tasks confidently, throwing in human installations, shadow puppetry and sleight of hand. Meanwhile Clancy Flynn’s inventive set makes a little go a long way in capturing the travelling circus ambience. As director, Mallinson keeps things tight across the various segments, but for further development she needs to hone in on movement and diction, and to add a few more circus-related vignettes if only for atmosphere.   Nick Awde 

Civil Rogues   Pleasance     ****
An inventive and highly entertaining romp, this new play by Tim Norton mixes panto dames and historical drama, with a bit of Shakespeare pastiche thrown in. During the Cromwell era, when theatres were outlawed, a bootleg production is raided, forcing the actors, including the men costumed for women's roles, to flee. Three actors in drag manage to get themselves hired as housemaids in the home of a woman who for reasons of her own wants to put on a private performance and asks them to find actors for her. So we get the fun of drag, of rapid switching in and out of drag, of men falling for the supposed women, of running and hiding from suspicious but dim authorities, and eventually of a high-speed super-condensed version of Romeo and Juliet. It is all very silly, funny and even a bit educational, weakened only by a too-abrupt ending that amounts to a confession that the playwright really didn't have an ending.  Gerald Berkowitz

Claustrophobia   Zoo     ***
A man and woman are stuck in a stalled lift. After frustration and anger come panic by one, reassurance by the other, time-killing, chat, getting to know each other, learning perhaps too much about each other, cracks in the calmer one's facade, and withdrawals into their separate private thoughts and fears. There are more ways to be trapped than in a metal box, and Jason Hewitt's play, by exposing the two characters' self-generated mental shackles, leaves open the speculation that this broken lift may be as metaphoric as real. As the play's focus shifts between the external situation and the characters' inner lives, director Sharon Burrell effectively moves the presentation in and out of realism, maintaining ambiguities even at a small cost to literal clarity. Particularly effective, though used perhaps once too many times, are almost musical intervals of tightly choreographed tics, coughs and nervous mannerisms. But the short play doesn't discover much that is original or surprising when it does get into the characters' heads, and although actors Jessica Macdonald and Paul Tinto present them effectively and sympathetically, they remain somewhat predictable types rather than fully-realised individuals.  Gerald Berkowitz

The Collector   Gilded Balloon     ***
The conduct of the American armed forces within their detention centres for local suspects during the Iraq war comes under fire in Henry Naylor’s latest play, a hard-hitting drama that asks awkward questions about how rotten things have to get before sense steps in. Told from the perspective of three of the characters – two Americans and an Iraqi – it triangulates on the murky descent into madness of one of these prisons. Captain Kasprowicz (William Reay) is head of the prison, whose affair with warden Foster (Lesley Harcourt) compromises his ability to crack down on the abuses and atrocities committed on the detainees by his men. Meanwhile, Iraqi Zoya (Ritu Arya) describes how her husband got roped into becoming a translator for the Americans and is now trapped in the prison, branded a collaborator and fearful for his life. It is his story that provides the catalyst for the calamitous events that follow, exposing the complex morality concerning the collateral damage that military occupation inflicts on the civilian population. Bearing in mind that the audience on the night was engrossed throughout and confidently showed their appreciation at the end, it remains that Naylor’s direction has failed to harness an uneven cast who lose a lot of momentum as a result, although they pick things up by the end. The plot is also dogged by pitfalls of logic and plausibility, meaning that the pay-off at the climactic conclusion feels unearned. Additionally the Iraqi accents seem to be more Iranian than Arabic. Clearly little of this matters, since there is an extensive audience out there who will want to experience Naylor’s play with a message, and will therefore easily see the whole as being greater than the sum of its parts.  Nick Awde

Ctrl+Alt+Delete   Zoo Southside     ****
A monologue in the jumpy rhythms and off-rhymes of rap, Ctrl+Alt+Delete is the story of a young woman with every reason to want to disconnect her past and start over. As a south London child and teen she was more aware than most kids of the world around her, absorbing the horrors and implications of 9/11, the Menendez killing and the summer riots, admiring Gandhi and writing a fan letter to Nelson Mandela. But her unloving and abusive mother, determined to punish her for ideas above her station, keeps trying to break her spirit, sabotages her university prospects and attacks her physically. Can she survive, reboot and start over? Though older than the character she's playing, Emma Packer embodies all the young woman's energy, intelligence and depth, making us wish the best for her. The monologue, which Packer also wrote, loses its way for a while near the end, and a too-long section on jobs and clothes should be re-thought. Packer has brought us too close to the girl and her voyage for us to bear a delay to the emotionally powerful conclusion.  Gerald Berkowitz

Cuckooed   Traverse     ****
Performer and political activist Mark Thomas discovered about a decade ago that a close friend and fellow battler against the international arms trade was spying on the group for their biggest foe, arms company BAE Systems. His account of the emotional effect of this betrayal on those who thought the culprit an ally and the further proof it offers of the enemy's perfidy is raised beyond the level of mere tirade or lecture by Thomas's theatrical sense and skills as a performer. Videotaped interviews with other activists are edited and played so that Thomas can have real-time conversations with them about their shock at the treachery, while time and his comic sensibility allow Thomas to speak with more rueful irony than rage, sprinkling even the darkest parts of the story with pointed jokes. Meanwhile, the accounts of Thomas's victories along the way, from tricking an Indonesian general into admitting on camera that he employs torture to setting up dummy companies to lure arms sellers into offering illegal deals, have an infectiously celebratory air that balances his anger and keeps the hour within the realm of thought-provoking entertainment.  Gerald Berkowitz

Cutting Off Kate Bush   Gilded Balloon     ****
Meet Cathy. She’s putting up kooky video posts on YouTube explaining to the world why she’s finding things a bit difficult – although she insists she's really okay. But as she sets up her vids, she offers clues explaining her increasing isolation and refusal to answer the phone or pay the bills. Now 27, nearing the age of her mother's premature passing, she turns to her mum's old Kate Bush LPs for comfort. She mimes along to the songs but then starts to delve deeper, letting them take her over, finding resonances with her mother’s madness that maybe she shouldn't. Like Bush, performer/writer Lucy Benson-Brown has created a kooky world behind which lies a kaleidoscopic world of complexities which, in this play, gradually open up to reveal the wider darkness of Cathy’s mental state. Benson-Brown’s infectious versatility wins the audience’s trust in joining her on this oddball journey into Cathy’s dark rabbit hole of reality. Meanwhile, tight direction from Sam Curtis Lindsay ensures that the delivery engrosses and Bush’s songs are beautifully rendered even when parodied – cue the neat helium trick. When singing straight, Benson-Brown shows that she is no mere tribute act but cuts straight to the chase of the theatrical framing that Bush has made her trademark in her writing and performance. With spot-on re-creations of classic Bush choreography, Benson-Brown also impresses in the movement department and so ensures that the pace never falters.   Nick Awde

Save on a Great Hotel!

Dalloway    Assembly Roxy     ****
In adapting Virginia Woolf's largely stream-of-consciousness novel, writer-director Elton Townend Jones has had to converge the private thoughts of several characters into a continuous monologue, leaving actress Rebecca Vaughan with the task of creating instant characterisations and differentiating among them while holding an audience for ninety minutes through a narrative that is more static and internal than linear. That the pair, leading forces in Dyad Productions, are not defeated by the challenge is an accomplishment in itself. That they succeed as well as they do is remarkable. Novel and monologue devote most of their attention to three characters, Clarissa Dalloway, society matron whose life's work lies in throwing successful parties; Peter Walsh, an old admirer who realises and resents that he's still in love with her, and Septimus Warren Smith, shell-shocked Great War veteran whose real pain counterpoints the relatively minor problems of the others. Rebecca Vaughan is particularly successful in communicating Clarissa's essential goodness without disguising her triviality, and a little less able to suggest that there's more depth to her than is evident. It can't be denied that at ninety minutes the monologue is a strain on both performer and audience, and Jones might have done both a service by resisting the impulse to be comprehensive and trimming some minor characters and incidents.  Gerald Berkowitz

Dead To Me    Summerhall     ***
The diversity of Summerhall's programme is evident when challenging pieces of physical theatre and performance art sit alongside this polished but wholly conventional production that plays like an adequate but unmemorable TV drama. A man (playwright Gary Kitching) visits a medium (Tessa Parr) because someone gave him a gift certificate and, as much because he's lonely as any other reason, keeps coming back. But when his belief in her powers leads him to think he has psychic power as well, and to set himself up as a healer, she is faced with a moral dilemma. Whether she's legitimate or not, what she does is relatively harmless, but he could cause real danger to people. Just how much about herself should she confess, and has she already created a monster she can't control? There's a satisfyingly nasty sting in the tail of the play, but nothing to really shake the audience, and the whole thing is just too tame and predictable. Gary Kitching may have made a mistake in casting himself as the man, because he's too solid and sensible a presence for either the character's neediness or gullibility to be convincing, but Tessa Parr creates a delightfully kookie figure who may not be a typical medium but is a lot of fun to watch.  Gerald Berkowitz

Death Shall Have No Dominion (What Remains of Richard? and Mametz Wood  Laughing Horse@The Phoenix     ****
Remarkably ambitious for a Free Festival offering, this Welsh company produces two full-cast plays performed on alternate days and loosely tied by the theme of after-death reputation. What Remains of Richard? questions the received view of Richard III, refuting Shakespeare's slanders point by point. It is a clear, entertaining and persuasive presentation of the Ricardian cause, hampered slightly as theatre by the constant need for characters to introduce themselves to each other or review their back stories in soliloquies, just to get all the information in. Mametz Wood tells the story of a Welsh regiment decimated in one of the Great War's most pointless battles. It's a textured view, giving us the opportunity to meet some of the soldiers and acknowledging that even the biggest twits among the officers were men of honour. Scenes are presented out of chronological order, creating such sad ironies as watching the men express fear or confidence when we already know which are going to die. With a tiny stage, no sets and little more than minimal costumes the actors, who appear in both plays, create fully rounded characters and engrossing realities, admirably showcasing their talent and proving both plays worthy of further development and fuller productions.  Gerald Berkowitz

The Devil Without   C Chambers Street     ****
Edinburgh is all about evolution, where the potential for cross-fertilising genres seems endless. Given the increase in mentalist shows adopting storytelling formats, it is a logical step for a mind-reader and hypnotist to take the leap into a fully fledged piece of drama. Welcome then to Ian Harvey Stone’s highly original take on Faust. Harvey Stone enters, worried, hounded even. He introduces himself, extends his professional credentials, and then bluntly offers us the choice to leave… before it is too late. He warns of an impending horror that is coming for him, a diabolic rendezvous we can help him escape. As the demon draws closer to claim his soul, Harvey Stone has the audience help him build an aura of defence by running through the gamut of mind-reader routines – telepathy, suggestion and even mass meditation. Volunteers are hypnotised while pink and low-noise oscillators suitably unsettle the atmosphere, combining with Daniel Sarstedt’s music and Peter Bryant’s sound design to keep things edgy. Not all the routines work as they should – indeed things can be a little hit and miss – but, as director and writer, Harvey Stone confidently keeps the tension up throughout. Scriptwise, he needs to add more background on the Faustian pact with background pointers at critical points. With more development and external direction, this will prove to be a winner on the touring circuit both nationally and abroad.  Nick Awde 

Donald Robertson Is Not A Stand-Up Comedian   Traverse     ****

A clever and laugh-filled comedy with a lot of satisfyingly bad jokes, a touch of sentiment and a twist in its tail, this performance piece written and performed by Gary McNair is an excellent way to end a Fringe day (or begin a Fringe night, depending on your timetable). Traverse Two is transformed into a typical comedy club as McNair comes on as a hapless comic who, after a few false starts, finds his subject and his performing rhythm in an extended story of meeting and mentoring a nerdy schoolkid with dreams of turning himself into the class clown to deflect the bullies and become something resembling cool. McNair's character coaches the kid in how to construct and deliver a joke, how to win over an audience, and other tricks of the trade, in the process offering us an entertaining (and even informative) meta-commentary on what he's doing here in the comedy club as he's doing it. The story is warmly involving, the jokes along the way are good, and McNair himself is a skilled and personable performer who not only effectively plays a less talented version of himself but invests the guy with some of his own charm. And wait for the ending, whose twists and surprises send you out into the night thoroughly satisfied.  Gerald Berkowitz

Travelup Flight Deals

Dr. Longitude's Marvellous Imaginary Menagerie
Pleasance     ****
Curiously not marketed as a children's show, this colourful musical extravaganza would certainly delight kids, while adults drawn to it by Les Enfants Terribles' reputation for imaginative theatricality are likely to admire the cleverness while wishing they had a youngster along to really enjoy it. Dr. Longitude and his company are travelling mountebanks who may not have all their amazing creatures on display but can tell in story and song how they captured the unique decopus, the amazing cake-stealing bird, the giant bumblewasp and the others. The Doctor and his crew, pretty strange specimens themselves, tell the sometimes Seussic, sometimes Dahlish tales with gusto, clowning broadly, employing puppets and masks both attractive and appealingly yucky, telling bad jokes, interacting with clownish slapstick and inviting panto-like responses they are unlikely to get from grown-ups. However clever the production is, it does not operate on two levels, giving adults something separate to watch and enjoy as the best family entertainment must, and so while adults can respect the company's artistry and invention, they will more enjoy imagining how much more fun this show would be with a lot of kids around.  Gerald Berkowitz

The Duel   Edinburgh International Conference Centre     ***
A Brazilian company translates a Chekhov novella to the stage, inevitably investing it with a sometimes incongruous Latin American energy and flavour, and with mixed results. As in the original, the play centres on Ivan Laievski, stuck in a Caucasian seaside town and tired of his mistress. While there are several characters who have reason to dislike him, it is Von Koren, a visiting scientist, who is so offended by Laievski's general lifestyle that he challenges him to a duel. The prospect of death sobers and matures Laievski, who survives to be a better man. This large-scale production by Mundana Companhia has several impressive sequences, largely those involving seaside scenes, and some effective expressionistic interludes in the generally realistic staging. But The Duel is not a sprawling epic like, say, Nicholas Nickleby, and a three-hour adaptation feels stretched and padded, unable to hold its focus on the small story at its centre. In an attempt to get everything in, no real distinction is made between central action and minor incident, major characters and secondary figures, or the discussion of key themes and small talk. Meanwhile Von Koren is not established as a significant character, and the duel comes out of nowhere in the last half-hour. The result is too small a collection of striking moments in too bloated a production.  Gerald Berkowitz

Durham Revue   Underbelly     ****
The only real competition to the Oxbridge revues, Durham's strength as a revue team has always been in jokes. They don't just come up with sketch ideas with comic potential, but put comic stuff in them, something other university revues too often forget to do. This year's edition actually makes a running joke of one-liners – between sketches someone comes out, says something funny, and goes away. There's even a one-liner about one liner (Don't ask), while a Mastermind sketch profligately throws in a dozen excellent gags less fertile minds would have spread over half the show. Meanwhile there's a good Lion King parody, a not-quite-so-good Les Miserables number and a thoroughly silly bit about a bomber crew. Even a relatively weak sketch like the inept assassin is saved by a great finish. Everything from the Queen's speech to the toilet habits of astronauts is fair game and the basis for genuine comedy, making this another bumper year for Durham.  Gerald Berkowitz

Eric And Little Ern   Gilded Balloon   (reviewed in London)   ****

Every Edinburgh Festival Fringe has at least one or two tributes to a beloved comedian of the past – a Tommy, Benny, Pete & Dud or even Stan & Ollie. Though they're all separate independent productions, I've come to think of them as the ongoing Dead Comic Chronicles. This two-man version by and with Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stephens is one of the best of the genre. There's a standard format for these tribute shows that Ashpitel and Stephens follow – the comics are found in some situation that justifies reminiscences and then take us through their lives and careers, possibly slipping in some of their best bits. Here Ernie, in hospital shortly before his death in 1999, is visited by the ghost of Eric, who died in 1984. They quickly circumvent any hints of the maudlin, entertaining themselves with memories and recreations of classic sketches (with credit to original writers Eddie Braben, Dick Hills and Sid Green). Fans will know what I mean when I refer cryptically to the ice cream van, paper bag, Des O'Connor, wig join and Greig piano concerto, and the gags and routines are good enough that anyone hearing them for the first time will enjoy them. Quite remarkably, Jonty Stephens does not look at all like Eric Morecambe until he puts on the eyeglasses, at which point the resemblance is not only overwhelming but Stephens channels Morecambe's comic genius better than any other impressionist. Ian Ashpitel's Ernie is less uncanny, both in appearance and style, but serviceable, and one thing the two performers do capture perfectly is the chemistry and smooth interplay of the originals who could practically read each other's minds. Personally, I have never quite seen the point of Elvis impersonators and ABBA tribute bands, preferring recordings and video clips of the originals to even the best imitators. But if you want to see some very talented guys who are not Morecambe and Wise doing Morecambe and Wise material, this comes as close as you could wish to the real thing. Gerald Berkowitz

Ernest   C Cubed     ***
This modest little musical based on Wilde's The Importance Of Being Earnest will entertain those with correspondingly modest expectations but might disappoint those hoping that more of the original's wit, style and charm had remained. Condensing Wilde's play into an hour that includes several songs meant that something had to go, and the first seems to have been much of the epigrammatic wit (even Lady Bracknell's most famous two words are missing), followed by all but the bare outlines of characterisation and whole chunks of plot. The songs by adaptor Phil Jacobs are pleasant without being memorable, those that grow out of the play, like Algy's salute to Bunburying, scoring more than the rather generic numbers that could have been inserted in any other musical, like the several love songs. The cast, generally more comfortable speaking than singing, try to capture some of the play's high style, Simon Kingsley's Algernon and Catherine Hayworth's Cecily most successfully. Gerald Berkowitz

Ernest And The Pale Moon   Pleasance      ****
What has since 2008 become Les Enfants Terribles' signature production is revived in 2014 in all its macabre glory. Oliver Lansley's script leans heavily on Poe (particularly A Cask of Amontillado and The Tell-Tale Heart) as well as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Psycho, blending these influences into something fresh and theatrically effective. On a skewed nightmarish set with the characters all in whiteface, we are introduced to solitary Ernest who spends his evenings looking out his window and into the window across the way of a lovely girl who spends her time just looking at the moon. Ernest's innocent fantasy romance is spoiled when the girl meets a young man, leading to murderous impulses, madness and – well, let me just say that not everything we see is exactly what it seems, and the play has some surprises that are not just loud noises and flashing lights. A bit slow going, with extended blackouts between scenes while the cast move about, this is at its best a thorough success in combining design, costume and performances to create and sustain an otherworldly mood and a model of the enjoyable scare.  Gerald Berkowitz

Et Tu Elvie   C Chambers Street      ***
The idea of staging an Elvis Presley biog as told (mostly) through snippets of classic Shakespeare is a bizarre concept to say the least. To actually do it is doubly bizarre – but also a wonderfully challenge, as this production from Xanadu proves. The classic chapters of Elvis’ life are also strung together with iconic songs – including Are You Lonesome Tonight in which Elvis famously declared “the world’s a stage”. The dialogue between Elvis and the key personalities who influenced him use the bard’s words, often naughtily but tastefully rejigged to suit the pop icon’s style – “by the swivel of my hips something wicked this way trips!” as the witches accost Elvis, when child bride Priscilla turns up Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are invoked, while his manager the Colonel Hamlet inspires “a born devil” description from The Tempest. Aided and abetted by director Nancy Medina, performers/musicians Peter Baker, Amy Barnes, Kate Mayne and Karl Wilson are a highly supportive ensemble. The fact that things veer from inspired to less so does not detract from this being a bold idea for which they deserve praise for pulling through with such charm and enthusiasm. With a dramaturg’s input and a rethink on the musical numbers, there is a highly promising show bubbling under here.   Nick Awde

An Evening With Dementia   Space on The Royal Mile    (reviewed at a previous Festival) ****
Probably the best measure of this show’s success was the number of young people in the audience giggling delightedly and jumping to their feet in a standing ovation at its end. Trevor T. Smith, a one-time member of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop and a regular TV face in the 1980s, has booked himself into what seems to be a predominantly student venue and it is working a treat. I imagine that the subject of his show – old age and dementia – carries all sorts of benefits with it. If nothing else, forgetting one’s lines and repeating oneself is thoroughly justifiable. But Smith is a consummate professional both as an actor and as the author of his script. Opening with a succession of quips and gags masquerading as tips and tricks on how to deal with memory loss, Smith’s narrative culminates in a searing satire on a society which has become demented by ‘forgetting the memory of their humanity’. There are moments of poetry and playfulness here too, and as a self-confessed former thespian, our hero will turn his thoughts to the meaning of the shared experience too. A gem that will be remembered for a long time. Duska Radosavljevic

Every Brilliant Thing   Summerhall     ****
The starting point for this unusual presentation is a friendly man (Jonny Donahoe, best known as a comedian), who stands in the centre of Summerhall's Roundabout, having handed out numbered “brilliant things” for the audience to recite on cue. These are used to illuminate an ostensibly autobiographical story that starts with a maternal suicide attempt when our guide was 7. His solution was to build a library of brilliant things to cheer up Mum, Dad and the audience. These start with “Ice Cream” and include “Laughing so hard you shoot milk out your nose”, eventually forming a quirky, microcosmic view of the world today. Through an hour, we watch our guide grow to manhood, find and lose love and eventually come to terms with himself. The genius of this piece by Duncan Macmillan, impeccably directed by George Perrin, lies in the rich comedy that involves and takes advantage of the audience members without lampooning them but then goes further, creating pathos and empathy, to the extent that tears and laughter combine in one of the most uplifting shows on the Fringe in 2014.  Philip Fisher

An Extraordinary Light  Space at Surgeons Hall     ***
Rosalind Franklin, the woman who was robbed of her share of the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA, gets to make her case in this modest but engrossing monologue written by Rob Johnston and performed by Katherine Godfrey. In the 1950s, while Watson and Crick were making the imaginative leap that let them construct a model of what DNA had to look like, Franklin was methodically making and analysing the microphotography that actually proved that they guessed right. As Godfrey points out here, science is more of a boys' game than most would admit, and boys like to be first and only reward winners. Franklin, on the other hand, had grown up with an ingrained morality of thoroughness and certainty. When she was able to point out that Watson and Crick's first model was flawed, they raced to come up with a better one, while she took away the lesson not to go public until she was absolutely sure. Katherine Godfrey's mode is appropriately cool and professional, her composure slipping only when she's most exasperated at her rivals, particularly the third Nobel winner, Maurice Wilkins, who didn't play fair. It should be noted that Nobels are not awarded posthumously, and Franklin died before the others got theirs, so we'll never know if the boys' club would have let her in. History is catching up to acknowledging her importance in the history of DNA, and this well-written and engagingly performed hour is an easy-to-understand and entertaining contribution to the process. Gerald Berkowitz

50 Shades! The Musical  Assembly Hall     *****
With the massed arrival each year of new musicals that retread Sondheim and Lloyd Webber with depressing self-importance, well-crafted tongue-in-cheek shows like Book of Mormon deservedly fill the gap, and 50 Shades! is a welcome contender. Having already sold out theatres overseas, the show’s now ready for the UK and, if the wild packed houses at the Assembly Hall are anything to go by, the UK is more than ready for the show. It does what says on the packet – a musical parody of EL James’s megaseller 50 Shades of Grey – creating extra space and flexibility for comedy via the neat device of framing the erotic relationship between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele within a bookclub where three readers go on their own personal journey of sexual self-discovery. Across a cleverly mobile set, things get hot in the real and literary worlds as gawky tycoon Christian and geeky ingenue Anastasia test each other’s libidos. Lucy Grainger and Chris Grace as the unlikely lovers head a nine-strong cast who make singing, dancing and reeling out wicked one-liners look enviably easy while constantly mainlining with the audience. That the team nail it the second they hit the stage is helped by the fact that this is essentially the same show as the legendary try-out in the same space in 2012, expanded with extra routines of similar quality. Created by the team behind long-running musical improv Baby Wants Candy, there’s no deadwood in the dialogue and not a dud in the songs, which, while admittedly generic, are themselves well-crafted parodies with strong singalong melodies that throw in punchline after punchline. Director Al Samuels has the confidence to concentrate much of the action right at the lip of the stage, showcasing jaw-dropping numbers such as Grace working his way through the front rows while belting out his very clearly stated carnal intentions towards each and every one of them. Nick Awde

Tim Fitzhigham - Hellfire  Pleasance Dome     ****
That amiable madman Tim Fitzhigham is at it again. Though he announces at the start of his hour that, contrary to his usual pattern, he hasn't done something weird and life-threatening this year, like rowing the English Channel in a bath or marching through Spain in full armour, he soon is showing us video of him in a boat escaping from the Iranian navy (Don't ask) and setting a speed record for slaloming without a sled. Tim's ostensible subject this year is a mysterious fan letter he got and how it sent him on an exploration of the eighteenth-century Hellfire Club and its potential connections to the Masons, the Illuminati and the American Revolution. The journey into conspiracy theory may have been as threatening to Tim's mental health as previous adventures were to his body, but he came out more-or-less intact and about as sane as he was when he began, which means that with his usual wide-eyed wonder at his own madness he tells a hilarious tale with infectious humour and delight. There are some actual jokes along the way, but mainly the testimony of a man who appreciates the bizarre and absurd in the world and is doing his part to contribute to it. Gerald Berkowitz

The Flood  Summerhall     ****
A First World War officer leads his men into battle, symbolically throwing bits of raw meat at a wall. A nurse gathers them up and performs triage, discarding the 'dead' and returning the others as fit for duty. This scene, repeated a dozen times in the course of the play, is a powerful metaphor for the insanity and human cost of war, and plays movingly against another repeated trope, a woman back home describing a recurring dream of Death, who she fights off with the power of will and love, keeping her beloved alive one more day. Badac, a company known for addressing hard subjects through unrelenting, even cruel attacks on the audience, are relatively mild here, relying on the psychological power of the repetition of these two painful images and the growing sense of despair and doom they generate to produce its effect. A script built on the stammering fragments and repetitions of high passion contributes to the play's power, and producer/director/writer/actor Steve Lambert and actress Susanne Gschwendtner movingly embody the emotional costs of war, the play's only weakness lying in the hint of going on too long generated by its unrelenting intensity and cyclical structure.  Gerald Berkowitz

Freak  Assembly     *****
A frequently moving, sometimes harrowing, occasionally comic and ultimately affirming portrait of female sexuality in the Twenty-first Century, Anna Jordan's play offers two strong acting roles to the very impressive April Hughes and Lia Burge. In their separate bedrooms, represented on stage by the same bed, a teenage girl and an older woman deliver alternating monologues about their adventures and misadventures in sex. The girl is just beginning her experimentation, with an attractive innocence and excitement, but also with an inexperience that may be taking her too far too fast. The woman (who we'll eventually learn is her aunt) rebounds from a break-up by looking for empowerment as an exotic dancer, only to let her wavering self-esteem take her into dangerous territory. At the centre of the play are two very explicit narratives that might even have some pornographic power until you are caught up short by the realisation that one is of an underage girl and the other of a violent and degrading gangbang. At this point the play shifts modes and the two characters finally interact, the aunt able to reassure and guide the girl through her confusion about sex and the niece's innocence helping to cure the older woman. The playwright-director drives the audience through a roller-coaster of emotions before finding a calm and comfortable level ground at which to end. Lia Burge as the aunt and especially April Hughes as the girl draw us fully into their characters' states of mind, inspire our sympathy and concern as they move into perilous territory and then convincingly reassure us that all will eventually be well.   Gerald Berkowitz

Front  Lyceum Theatre     ****
In a thoughtfully ambitious response to Word War I, Thalia Theater and NT Gent weave together experiences of the four nations who found themselves facing each other over Flanders Fields in Belgium. Drawing on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front and Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire, director Luk Perceval conducts a collage of voices from the trenches, no-man’s land, field hospitals and ravaged villages. Perceval eschews any direct portrayal of war, instead having his 11-strong cast line up as an orchestra in front of empty music stands, using their narratives to create a well-paced multi-levelled symphony that is equally visual and physical, each performer an instrument with their own mood to throw into the mix. The reality they frame is the giant crushed concrete wall upon which contemporary images of soldiers linger. The backdrop also functions as an in-situ assemblage of percussive sheets which, added to by the casts’ use of microphones, create a constant soundscape of gas attack and bombardment. Aside from the conflict and life in the trenches, the characters fret about the farms they have left behind, debate mercy killing in shellholes, find love while recuperating from their wounds or seek female company amidst the occupied population. Touched on but less successfully explored is the Flemish-Walloon tensions within the Belgian ranks. Their differences blur, gradually drawing together in the final quarter where the narrative strands form a crescendo where the voices are united by common desires and fears. The multilingualism is a key dramatic vehicle, being a Flemish (Dutch)-German apposition with a smattering of French and English thrown in here and there for framing. Here Flemish offers humanity to German – gently dismantling our preconceptions of the aggressor’s language – through careful positioning of dialogue that exploits the underlying similarity of the two closely related languages, powerfully revealed at the finale when the two main protagonists cry out the same lines in near harmony yet poignantly dissonant. Admittedly a lot of this will be lost on an English-speaking audience reading the surtitles since they will struggle understandably to differentiate even between East Flanders Flemish and High German, perceiving a dialect continuum instead of the stark linguistic contrast that vitally channels the dynamics of the piece.  Nick Awde 

Gagging For It  Space Cabaret@54     ***
Comedian-writer Tim Clark takes us civilians behind the scenes of a comedian's life in this mild comedy set backstage at an Edinburgh Fringe comedy venue. The four comics on tonight, along with the venue operator and a TV scout, gather in the tiny green room (despite the minimal set, considerably posher than most actual Fringe backstage areas) before and during a show. The comics try to bluff each other with tales of successful gigs, try out gags and routines, share enmity toward critics, audiences, other comics and just about anybody not present, and dream of a TV series of their own. There are a few nice Fringe in-jokes, like the comedian who parades his five-star review from an insignificant paper. Eventually all of them will prove capable of stabbing their best friend in the back to advance themselves, and one or two might actually succeed. It is performed by a cast made up largely of actual stand-up comics, who know whereof they speak, though the level of their acting is uneven. But for all the believability, humour and small touches of drama along the way there's really little here that's news to anyone who can imagine what a non-star comic's life is probably like.  Gerald Berkowitz

A Game Of Soldiers  Lauriston Halls     ****
This year you’ll look in vain for the Great Scottish Play at the Traverse, but if you pop round the corner to Lauriston Street, you’ll find it there. Played in the round in this boomy ceilidh hall with the house lights blazing and minimal budget, this stands or falls on its ability to do the show. Which it does impressively, bundling in a heartfelt moral tale with cracking in-yer-face performances. Andy (Craig Anthony-Ralston) and Ed (Ryan John Monaghan) are working-class Glasgow lads looking to improve their prospects. The army seems a good step up – not only will they get fed and lodged for free, but they might even save up enough cash for a car. Duly signed up, after training they’re raring for duty in the Iraqi war zone and pumping the testosterone into their L85 rifles. And so off they go, under the command of their gruff tough-love English NCO (Stephen Clyde), only to find that they’re not at the front line but in a town policing the local population. The paradox of representing a benevolent occupying force raises its head when they come under moral fire after befriending a local Iraqi (Atta Yaqub) who bridges the cultural gap when he recognises the Rangers’ strip Andy patriotically wears under his uniform. Writer Joe McArdle works snappy dialogue into a hardnosed examination of Scottish-English rivalries interlocked with attitudes to Johnny Foreigner and the morality of war, while director Andrew Byatt choreographs this superb ensemble with split precision, providing some inventive resolutions to the challenge of the space. With a bit of budget and a couple of obvious tweaks in the script, particularly on the Iraqi culture side, this will find audiences nationally and internationally.  Nick Awde

God's Own Country   Zoo Southside     ***
Aged 19, Sam Marsdyke is a bit touched. Something his own family acknowledges constantly, and so, after problems at school, he has ended up safely working on the family farm, miles away from the rest of us. Adapted by Kyle Ross and Joel Samuels from Ross Raisin’s 2008 novel of the same name, this is a highly intelligent, often comic portrait of madness in the Yorkshire moors, aka God’s Own Country. Our loner is jolted from his strange internal world when a posh family moves in nearby with a 15-year-old. Although he gets off to a bad start by sending over maggot-infested mushrooms, he eventually befriends the girl – and that’s when things turn grim (well, this is set Up North of course). High in broad Yorkshire vowels but low on potentially distracting dialect, Samuels, who alternates nights with Ross, tells the story in short chapters demarcated by brief blackouts. It’s an unexpectedly effective way of giving pause to allow the details to sink in, and also to notch up a gear as each section begins. Achieving a measured yet powerful portrayal, director Anthony Lau keeps Samuels static, projecting concentrated energy into the audience, with every twitch and nuance amplified. What is less easily discernable is Sam’s descent into complete and irredeemable madness. Without stooping to histrionics, the performance still needs a bit more oomph to hit the right level of final unease. But no matter, since this is a measured, accomplished production that leaves you thinking well after the show’s end.   Nick Awde

Goodbye Gunther   Pleasance Dome     ***
The panic of imminent mortality, as experienced by an insistently cheery person, as portrayed by an inept and over-eager actor, as played by a clown – this solo play by Frank Wurzinger may involve one or two levels too many. But the basic pathos of the situation comes through without clashing too much with the broad clowning. Wurzinger enters as a nervous and nerdy puppy dog of a guy, tripping over himself and the set in his eagerness to establish the concept of this play and, indeed, of plays. He then steps into the character of Gunther, who is told in the first moments that he has ten days to live – a brain tumour seems most likely – but then tries to live normally while convincing us and himself that he's all right. He makes plans, plays cheery music, chats with his goldfish and keeps up a very brave front, all these things seen through the prisms of the supposed actor's overeager clumsiness and Wurzinger's clown skills. But Gunther also has increasingly scary attacks that become impossible to ignore, and comedy and pathos battle it out as this determined-to-be-cheerful little man runs out of resources.  Gerald Berkowitz

The Great Gatsby   Assembly Roxy     **
The best thing about this musicalised version of The Great Gatsby is the chorus, costumed and choreographed by director Ryan Domres in best Fosse style to snake sinuously around the action giving an evocative sense of a decadent world – which, of course, is not exactly appropriate to Fitzgerald's novel, but can be imposed on it with little harm. A couple of actual Gatsby musicals already exist, though in this case the company Blur, made up largely of American university students, insert existing songs by Lorde, Alicia Keys and other contemporary songwriters. Most of the songs are performed by the chorus as inter-scene commentary, leaving the principal actors generally unmusical and sometimes looking adrift, especially since none really capture their characters. No cast list is provided, and there's no need to name anyone, but while it's appropriate enough that Nick is a blank, there should be more in Daisy to justify her allure and there has to be something about Gatsby to hold Nick's attention and ours. (As it is, the principles repeatedly get lost in the crowd scenes and are hard to pick out of the chorus.) That alienation is compounded by relegating most of Nick's narration to a prerecording while the rear of the stage is dominated by a large screen showing a silent film of the same actors playing variant versions of the same scenes, oddly in fuller costume and hairstyles than they wear in person. And the fact that in this somewhat cavernous space much of the dialogue and most of the song lyrics are inaudible doesn't help. The overall effect is of earnest youngsters out of their depth even by generous Fringe standards and a director who devoted more of his talent to the look of the show than to his actors. Gerald Berkowitz

Hancock's Last Half-Hour   Assembly Rooms     ***
Since this is ancient history for many, a little background may be useful: Tony Hancock was a very popular radio and television comedian of the 1950s, his performing persona of a grumpy perpetual loser a comic extension of his actual personality. Like some other comics he was a dark and insecure man who never trusted his success and was tortured as changing audience tastes, breaks with colleagues and his increasing alcoholism led to the waning of his stardom, and he killed himself in 1968. Heathcote Williams's 1988 radio play (later adapted for the stage) finds Hancock alone in his home, fighting one hangover with the next day's drunk. Swinging wildly between egotistic self-assertion and dreary self-disgust, he remembers past glories, curses real and imagined foes and exposes enough real wit to remind us of the comic power he once had, before finally washing down a handful of pills with his vodka. Pip Utton, a master of the one-man show, began his career with this play and, although most of his work since then has been in self-written monologues, returns to it in 2014. He fully captures the emotional exhaustion and 'What's the point?' despair of the man, but is perhaps too nice a guy himself to find all that's in Hancock's darker side, the anger and self-hatred in Williams's script that explain why Hancock's final vengeance was on himself.  Gerald Berkowitz

Ben Hart   Underbelly     **
Young magician Ben Hart guesses cards, cuts and restores rope, pours water from empty jugs, multiplies balls and rips up and restores a newspaper – in short, the stock in trade of magic shops and the basic repertoire of amateur and beginning magicians everywhere. He has no special signature trick, nor is his patter and presentation particularly polished, witty or ironic. The title of his show, Vanishing Boy, refers to an extended anecdote that builds toward his final illusion – the water-pouring one – but that is repeatedly interrupted by unrelated tricks so that it never really becomes the backbone of the act. Hart possesses some boyish charm, but he too often either pushes it too hard, as when he begs for applause after every trick, or loses it, as when he seems a little too nervously engrossed in getting the technical manipulations right, and he just steps from one trick to another with no evident order, rhythm or forward momentum. A successful magic act is at least as much a matter of presentation as technical ability, and Hart offers too little of either to make him stand out. Gerald Berkowitz

He Had Hairy Hands   Pleasance     ****
Kill The Beast is one of the incredibly inventive, incredibly courageous young companies that the Fringe has discovered and nurtured throughout its history – writer-performers who come up with wholly original ideas and styles, and have the nerve to commit to them at full throttle. Their metier is the world of classic horror movies of the 1930s, pushed to their logical extreme until they become self-referential, self-feeding farces. He Had Hairy Hands is set in a village so filled with foggy atmosphere and inbred isolation that a werewolf is not the most bizarre of its residents and you are more likely to die laughing than clawed apart. Consider the two women both named Trisha given to walking their unseen somethings on the moors at night, or the cop whose idea of dictating a telegram is to rattle off 'dididotdidotdidot' over the phone. There's the mayor who ominously always wears gloves, the mysterious 'historiorium' that town funds have been diverted to and, of course, the howling in the night and growing pile of dead bodies. Four performers (who, along with the director, are credited as writers) play everyone, the quick and not always all that convincing changes of costume and characterisation being a big part of the joke. With everyone in spooky greyface out of the Thriller video and atmospheric film projections as background, this is a loving salute and send-up of a whole genre, a celebration of theatrical inventiveness, and a whole lot of fun. Gerald Berkowitz

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The Height Of The Eiffel Tower   Assembly Hall     ****
New Zealander Morgana O’Reilly (aka Naomi Canning in Neighbours) has plucked a gallery of characters from the highly specific cultural laboratory of her homeland’s suburbs and come up with a winning story with universal appeal. Meet Terri, a mum struggling gamely to keep up with her four offspring ranging from early teens to young adults. There’s nothing particularly abnormal about any of them, but as Terri prepares for the visit of an old college friend, you can see that a life with the kids has taken its toll. O’Reilly nails each member the instant they are introduced which allows her to quickly work on fleshing out their complicated and frequently barmy interactions. There’s the geeky Nathan (13) who’s worried about girls, pregnant Anna-Louise (16) who’s more interested in booze, while their older siblings comprise STD-worried slacker and over-thoughtful London exile. Somewhere in between all this is Terri, drowning not waving while still trying her best to please everyone. O’Reilly’s script is fiercely colloquial Kiwi yet steers clear of impenetrable slang, ensuring a colourful yet endearingly accessible portrait of our wannabe Shirley Valentine. With Abigail Greenwood’s careful directorial eye, O’Reilly delivers comedy and pathos with a mere flick of an eye, a grin or a grimace. She does big with equal impact – witness the big no-holds-barred setpiece of the two younger brats having an almighty scrap with each other in the sitting room. This is a play that was developed via performances in people’s living rooms, and so it needs no set or special design. Nevertheless, in this version carefully unobtrusive lighting punctuates O’Reilly’s narrative to great effect, confirming it as an impressive piece that leaves you thinking long after you’ve laughed.  Nick Awde

Horizontal Collaboration   Traverse     **
As is typical of playwright-director David Leddy, Horizontal Collaboration is as much an exercise in theatrical technique and effect as a dramatic work. As staging exercise it is not especially original; as play it is a bit of a misrepresentation and a disappointment. Leddy's ostensible subject is the use of rape and other sexual crimes as weapons in the never-ending African wars, even (as recent investigations have revealed) by UN peacekeepers. The play shows a war crimes tribunal with lawyers reading transcripts of testimony, and Leddy calls for four new actors to appear at each performance, reading their scripts cold. At this performance the actors happened to be all white women, but Leddy calls for any mix or permutation of genders and races. That device, of finding what is hoped to be fresh realism through cold first readings by a mix of performers, is not new, of course, and the perennial White Rabbit Red Rabbit is being performed in the same way in Edinburgh this month. More disappointing is that Leddy does not, after all, address the subject of sexual war crimes, but deflects the play into upmarket soap opera. The widow of a Nigerian warlord tries to take power by using sex to get to and attack her enemies. She in turn is being manipulated and betrayed by a trusted servant who is secretly her half-sister, who is plotting (and sleeping) with someone else, who is. . . . The fact that some of the figures involved in the sex-for-favours negotiations are from the UN is almost irrelevant, and the story is entirely about power struggles within the family. To come expecting an exposé of sexual war crimes and get instead an R-rated episode of Dynasty or Dallas is to feel disappointed and cheated by a playwright who has all the right to write about whatever he wants, but shouldn't invite you to expect more than he plans to deliver. Gerald Berkowitz

The Horror! The Horror! The Final Curtain   Bedlam     ****
For most of its length this is an inventive, evocative and very funny salute to and loving parody of end-of-the-pier Music Hall, spiced with some decorous double entendre, like about how Mr. Cox's widow misses Cox. From an opening song about the proper utilisation of button hooks through a demure young lady's comments on her boyfriend's uselessness as a farmer (with reference to being hard up, ploughing and spilling the seed), the puns, songs, bad jokes and one-liners come quickly enough that there is barely time to groan. The character types are nicely delineated and the whole thing is on its way to being a jolly jape when rather abruptly the final few minutes introduce a supernaturally dark plot. It's not a bad twist, and had it been there from the start this could have been a satisfying macabre comedy. But coming out of nowhere it merely interrupts the fun without replacing it effectively. Through the main body of the show the evocation of a lost genre, the rapid-fire humour and the sprightly songs are inventive and thoroughly entertaining, but the title and the ending seem to belong to some other script.  Gerald Berkowitz

Hot Cat   Pleasance     ****
The extraordinarily inventive Theatre Movement Bazaar has in recent years deconstructed and then reconstructed a couple of Chekhov plays, and now turn their attention to Tennessee Williams, guiding and indeed forcing us to look at what is for many the overfamiliar text of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof in fresh ways. The company's method is to bring subtexts to the fore, making clear to the audience what ordinarily only the actors might have spotted. Incidental throwaway lines, like a reference to that southern US dietary staple biscuits, are expanded and elaborated on until a whole culture of wives serving their unappreciative men is exposed. In a play built largely on Brick's refusal to sleep with his wife Maggie we might not notice that husbands' disdain for their wives is a family trait were scenes not restaged to underline the parallels. To help us understand the particular kind of 1950s homophobia that is central to the play, it is cleverly equated with the same era's fear of Communism. Of course those who know the Williams original will most appreciate the insights of Hot Cat, but anyone can enjoy the high energy, inventiveness and sheer joy of doing theatre that are the company's trademarks.  Gerald Berkowitz

The Human Voice   Spotlites@The Merchants' Hall    ****
If you want your chance to get a taste of top-notch Russian theatre, then pop into this English-language version of Cocteau’s La Voix Humaine from Moscow’s Armenian Theatre. Although it’s in English, what you’re getting is a production that in every other aspect is presented as you would see it in Moscow – i.e. not just another international show but one designed for its national context and so it arrives on our shores without compromise. Zita Badalyan is Cocteau’s protagonist, a jilted woman who pleads with her ex via the phone – whether he’s there or not, depending on the operator, crossed lines and hang-ups. The one-acter is structured, via the fragmented nature of the dialogue, to pump up the emotional scale step by step as the woman descends into despair. Channelled by Slava Stepanyan’s direction and played across a sparse but arty sitting room set, Zita Badalyan confidently goes through those steps, veering from hysteria to amusement to anguish via the odd moment of reflection. The brooding black-clad presence of Aleksei Samoilov provides a mimed extra dimension to her moments of introspection. As the central character Badalyan is much too young – we need to see that world-weary desperation as well as feel it – but to be honest against-age casting (for company reasons) is another feature of ex-Soviet theatre in general. In some ways this would play better in Russian – indeed, Badalyan delivers a short burst in the language which provides a tantalising glimpse of the whole, while evocative chants in Armenian top and tail the production.   Nick Awde

Hyde And Seek   C Nova    ****
Writer-actor Michael Daviot has been a lifelong fan of Robert Louis Stevenson, and in this deceptively rambling-seeming but actually tightly structured solo performance he weaves a narrative and philosophical fabric from the threads of Stevenson's life, Dr. Jekyll's and his own. Stevenson always insisted that Jekyll was the villain of his story for hypocritically trying to deny ownership of his darker side. Daviot has plenty in his own life he's not particularly happy with but, like Stevenson with his own problems, he acknowledges them as parts of who he is, and makes a convincing case for the need to integrate and accept all pieces of a self and a life. Jumping from reminiscence to RLS biography to quotations from the writings with more logic and purpose than are immediately evident, Daviot takes the audience on a journey through questions of morality, destiny and identity that seize and fascinate both thought and imagination. And if it is not always clear from moment to moment whether he is speaking of Jekyll, Stevenson or himself, it hardly matters. Daviot is a spellbinding writer and magnetic performer, and an hour that is over before you realise it will linger in the mind afterwards.  Gerald Berkowitz

I Killed Rasputin   Assembly    ***
Written by comedian Richard Herring, this play never seems sure whether it wants to be a slapstick farce, political satire, serious psychological drama or history lesson, and winds up an uneasy mix doing full justice to none of its modes. In 1967 a reporter interviews exiled Russian Prince Felix Yusupov about his claim to be the one who poisoned, shot, bludgeoned, stabbed, shot again and drowned the mad monk. This gets the amazing story out when it is not being interrupted by Yusupov being chased around the room by Rasputin's ghost, making passes at the younger man, or being the subject of his stoic wife's wry comments or an accident-prone maid's adoration. Many already know how difficult Rasputin was to kill, but there are further historical titbits like the fact that the Yusupovs lived very well in exile on the proceeds of lawsuits against MGM over a 1932 film. But history constantly fights for time and audience attention with the broad comic characterisations, the farce, the satiric comments and the serious insights into the emotional life of an exile, and director Hannah Banister can't make them blend or sit comfortably together. In a telling bit of cross-gender casting Nichola McAuliffe plays Yusupov as a vain old queen, with Eileen Nicholas nicely underplaying his witty wife and Joseph Chance generously serving a straight man and feed.  Gerald Berkowitz

Icarus   Zoo    ****
It’s the near future and three astronauts in a malfunctioning spacecraft are hurtling towards Mars. What makes this mission unusual is they will be the planet’s first colonists, who signed up via an extreme reality show which is paying them to be on camera 24 hours a (Martian) day. As the crew adjust to each other and the cramped boredom of spaceflight, in flashback we witness the pressures and dubious celebritydom wrought by the selection process, and the reasons for applying in the first place. Meanwhile a stream of clips flashes up on a ubiquitous screen – the Russian onboard can’t stop watching ‘old’ films like Jaws, while ads and news from their shady TV show provide a running commentary from Earth. Katie Robinson, Michael White and Dominic Myerscough work hard at switching characters or recreating weightlessness, bobbing bodies and things all over. Meanwhile Owen Rafferty’s sound and video design function like an extra character – indeed onscreen Lucas Smith makes regular appearance as the show’s host. Written and directed by Michael White and devised by the company, the Icarus moral seems cleverly split, where the sin of pride lies with the TV company and society, while the punishment is their being oblivious to the hapless astronauts’ fateful descent. This offers an intelligently wrought metaphor for those 15 minutes of fame therefore, couched in an impressive fusion of dreamy movement and realistic dialogue.  Nick Awde

In The Surface Of A Bubble   Zoo    ***
An original creation myth is brought to life using a mix of physical and verbal theatre techniques, but the effort devoted to communicating it is sometimes more evident than the meaning being communicated. Author-director-composer-actor Edward Day imagines a prehistory in which the daughter of immortal beings of pure imagination sets off on her own and discovers the pleasures of imposing restraints on herself and operating within them. She becomes physical, evolves into human shape, invents death to intensify the significance of everything before it, and generates a whole race of mortals. But physical bodies and death imply hunger and competition for resources, which create envy and hatred, which lead to war both among the mortals and against the last of the immortals, until the original girl finds a final evolution for the mortals that offers some hope. All this is presented by a young cast of four using Lecoq techniques, movement, mime, masks and puppets, and it all seems like very hard work. An effective myth should be easier for tellers to tell and audiences to absorb, but audiences of this play are likely to come away with more regard for the performers' hard work and dedication than for the author-director's vision.  Gerald Berkowitz

The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote Of La Mancha   Zoo    *****
A motley but charming crew of itinerant players appear onstage one by one. Like any travelling troupe worthy of the title they introduce themselves - in English and a smattering of Spanish - and tell the tale of the tale they are about to tell, the epic picaresque of Don Quixote of La Mancha, all the while apologising at their unworthiness in presenting such a classic. They are also a little sheepish over the constant mayhem wrought by the internal rivalries we can see gloriously simmering between the players. And what transpires is a technically brilliant and jaw-droppingly entertaining hour of theatre. Little Soldier take every trick and genre in the book and seamlessly integrate them into the action where needed, never overplaying, always moving on. There’s circus for jousting, ventriloquist puppet for the psychic monkey, magic dotted about the place, audience interaction at the most unexpected of moments, clowning jostling with musical hall comedy. The characters similarly diversify. They play like a twist on the Marx Brothers: bossy Merce Ribot, impish Patricia Rodriguez, silent musician Maria Camahort, with Stephen Harper as the unlikely hangdog romantic lead. Devised by the company and directed by Ian Nicholson, what makes this piece so winning is the total respect they bring to the story, the story within the story, the audience and the performes themselves, so rarely seen in today’s theatre, and they do this effortlessly. Such is the accessibility and appeal of this show, there is a large audience out there for this, both nationally and internationally and it will translate well into other languages.  Nick Awde

Janis Joplin: Full Tilt   Assembly Checkpoint    ****
Hailed as the first lady of rock when the genre emerged in the late 60s, Janis Joplin was iconic long before her death at 27. Impassioned vocalists abounded at the time, but the Texan singer’s accolade came from her instinctive ability to take those vocal talents into the realm of pure performance. And here she runs through her short life, pausing to deliver the career-defining songs – including a supremely winsome arrangement of Mercedes Benz – that were defined and driven by her suburban roots, life in the fast lane as rock’s new royalty, and descent into hard drug hell. Onstage too are her four-piece electric band, patiently framing her, as if guarding the talent that somehow survived despite Joplin’s journey to self-destruction. Angie Darcy has both the tonsils and the drama to capture Joplin’s spirit while wisely playing to the strengths of her own voice. As the drugs take over, she retreats to her dressing table, where the heroin lurks under the trademark Pearl feathers, and she makes a final plea for the right to self-definition even if it is via an alter-ego created on the world stage. Peter Arnott’s script cleverly incorporates many of Joplin’s own words, and, under Cora Bissett’s careful directorial eye, the result is an unsentimental show that is a celebration equally of breakthrough music and of one woman and her struggle to control her life and identity. A slight shame is that the songs, although clear crowdpleasers, tend to be samey, meaning that the show doesn’t quite hit the concluding high-point. Admittedly the mix is not as clear as it should be – yes this is a temporary Edinburgh space, but (a) it has a soundcheck pedigree after Forest Fringe’s pioneering work there, and (b) there are five musicians plus crew who should have the skill to tweak things.  Nick Awde

Jim   Space@Jury's Inn    **
A man is dying and the sons who could never be close to him find it difficult to express their feelings now or to reconcile this invalid with the strong and intimidating figure they remember. The brother who stayed resents the one who left, and they find themselves vying one last time to be the better son, while father is a difficult patient right up to the end. David O'Connor based this short play on his own father's death from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and it is not his fault that life sometimes imitates art and his real and personal tragedy plays on stage like an overfamiliar soap opera plot. Andrew Seddon and Nick Leonard work hard to individualise and deepen the too-generic characters of the brothers, and take turns playing the father in scenes with the other, while Zulehka Maynard-Brown is a sympathetic nurse who hides her emotions behind NHS jargon ('a non-survivable admission'). Part of the playwright's purpose is to educate audiences about the little-known COPD, and to that end the nurse rattles off some textbook information. Jim's heart is in the right place, but earnestness and even truth alone do not always make for effective drama.  Gerald Berkowitz

Julie Burchill: Absolute Cult    Gilded Balloon    ****
Lizzie Roper plays Julie Burchill, who has been on a sun-break in Tenerife. Like the rest of us the caustic columnist has come home to find a pile of bills and ansafone messages waiting for her - but her accountant is also on the phone pointing out that things aren’t looking good, especially as she’s been doing things like sending out huge cheques to help distressed donkeys in Israel. Since she’s been sacked from every quality newspaper in the land, Burchill needs work, but the emails enticing her to go on Big Brother for big bucks don't quite do it. Cracking open the vodka instead of unpacking, Julie gets on the phone to her coke dealer and muses on where things went wrong. Tim Fountain’s monologue, as delivered by Lizzie Roper, starts off as a stream acid one-liners that get the laughs from those in the know, but any worry that this is going to be one long in-joke is swiftly dispelled as the humour joins up to create a darkly comic, even touching, portrait of this complex 55-year-old scourge of society whose contradictions make her impossible to judge. As she wails towards the end: “I’m a writer not a celebrity!” Roper gives it her all and works with director Mike Bradwell to give the impression of going deliciously and infuriatingly over the top yet never once losing sight of the drama.   Nick Awde

Juvenalia   Assembly Hall    ****
Simon Callow and Edinburgh are old friends. Even so, the actor’s 2014 appearance is something completely different. In the Main Hall on the Mound, the actor turns up in full evening dress to deliver what is described as a stand-up act from 100 AD. In fact, he takes the bitchy role of Roman satirist Juvenal during an hour that seems based on the seven deadly sins, with lust generally to the fore. Callow’s point, and that of adapter Richard Quick, is that although the names have changed, little else is different a couple of millennia later. In fact, despite the updated language, the performance has the qualities of restoration comedy rather than 21st Century stand-up, which tends to be rather more direct. The delivery is as powerful as ever and the material can be amusing but it is still not as fluent as many of his previous solos of recent years. This means that while Callow addicts will have a whale of a time, neutrals might not be held through an intermittently amusing hour. Philip Fisher

Keeping Up With The Joans   Pleasance    ***
This slight, sentimental and strikingly old-fashioned little play by Philip Meeks offers the pleasure of seeing two well-loved veteran actresses, some mildly bitchy humour, and an ending that is both touching and optimistic. It is set in a retirement home and is likely to draw its core audience from similar places. An established resident and a newcomer are enemies from a half-century ago when they were stars of the local amateur theatre and rivals for the role of St. Joan and the friendship of a gay costume maker. Resuming their enmity now is complicated by the fact that both have failing memories and can't be sure who did what to whom back then, even though a current member of the am dram group keeps trying to jog their recollections of its golden past. Something that may be supernatural happens, some things are remembered, and the ladies discover more reasons to be friends than foes. Susan Penhaligon and Katy Manning enter to waves of love from the audience and can do no wrong, though it may sometimes be unclear whether memory lapses are the characters' or the actresses', while Arron Usher offers warm and generous support.  Gerald Berkowitz

Lach's Antihoot    Henry's Bar    *****
Amidst the melee of fringe shows, you can be forgiven for forgetting that there’s a whole lot of music going on. Predictably there’s rather a lot of that too – so the best entry point (depending on your taste naturally) has to be Lach’s Antihoot, the legendary open stage that has its residence at Henry’s Bar, a block down from the Traverse Theatre. It’s run by Antifolk supremo Lach, a New York exile who has transferred NYC's longest running, most successful open stage ever to our shores. Each Antihoot is a free show, a gloriously welcoming five-star evening of acoustic singer-songwriters (along with the occasional comedy and spoken word acts) doing eight-minute slots where you get the rough with the smooth with the excitingly emerging, where the Monday night’s Antihoot crowd vote for the winner who goes into the following Tuesday's Superhoot (also at Henry’s Bar). Here then is a highlight of what you can catch on a typical night (though with Lach at the helm it’s guaranteed that no night is the same). Singer-songwriter William Douglas was making a return after appearing at Lach’s first fringe Antihoot five years ago at the Gilded Balloon. Delivered in a clear expressive voice, he neatly mixed laconic with snappy as he sang sharply framed narratives which also got the laughs where intended, while he impressed by punctuating the lyrics with solo runs on the fretboard without breaking the beat. Next up was young stand-up Duncan Adam, whose gentle observations about his sad sex life and the even sadder situations of his friends went down well, particularly when setting up performance comparisons between sex and football. Following was Ella Prendergast, who opened by describing growing up with a mum who was mistakenly convinced she was gay – cue the gloriously and disctinctly non-homophobic I'm Not Gay, complete with dippy chorus. Another intro set us up for a bouncy anti-groping song about her bum, complete with audience call and response. Next on was Dog On A Swing, who plays uke like a dulcimer to accompany his darkly plaintive voice. Contrasting with Prendergast, he delivered a couple of laid-back numbers including a surprisingly intimate version of Marvin Gaye’s sublime Let's Get It On. Spoken word popped in with  J. A. Sutherland, who narrated The Sentence, an evocative fable where a woman observes a man posting poems about death in what might be a festival show in an Edinburgh phone booth. A eerie connection of sorts develops between the two in this evocatively told if marginally baffling piece. Back to music with Mike McFarlane, who opens with “a response to all songs called Cocaine”, which blends trippy guitar finger-style with pull-offs and ironic vocals with a caustic, sweetly damning chorus. Second song Lost At Sea is a slow but powerful number where he delivers the metaphor with knowing melancholy. On MC duties, Lach was, as always, the supreme host. On the night, he flowed with tales of updating West Side Story to West Bank Story, surreal sponsor’s announcements, cajoling the crowd, bigging up the acts and, somewhat believably, a recent encounter with a drag queen involving food at his recent Dive party extravaganza at Forest Café. If you stay on late, you’ll also see Lach perform with Henry's Cellar Dive Bar Band (The Only Band That Doesn't Matter) – your chance to experience one of the greatest songwriters around.  Nick Awde  

Lady Rizo   Assembly Checkpoint    *****
The New York-based singer-comedienne has built a deserved loyal following for her mix of parody sexuality (think a young Mae West) and brilliant song styling – indeed I, like many admirers, would be happy for her to reduce the flirtation with the audience and the storytelling to squeeze in a few more songs. Rizo brings a knowing passion and depth to everything she sings, from a mashing together of Close To You and Pure Imagination to the Bee Gees' To Love Somebody. Her current set leans less on old standards and more on more obscure songs like Amanda Palmer's I Google You and Jeff Buckley's Lilac Wine, both of which she turns into expressions of yearning passion. Tying the songs together is an account of her tangled love life which, if true, approaches Too Much Information, and she may rely a bit too much on turning the microphone volume up to eleven. But she knows her voice, and she knows that, unlike many, it benefits from loudness that brings out all her subtle phrasing. She is hovering on the edge of a major breakthrough, and this may be your last chance to say 'I saw her before she was a big star', but that's not the reason to go. Go because she's really, really good.  Gerald Berkowitz

Letters Home   Book Festival     ***
Commissioned by the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Grid Iron again surprises with its take on theatre and text by conjuring up a literary quartet of pieces centred around the letters we write, discovered in different rooms around Charlotte Square. There is an impressive difference too in the choice of dramatic vehicle, from intimate human interaction to hi-tech multimedia. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Details is an email exchange between two women in the UK and Nigeria – Rhoda Ofori-Attah and Muna Otaru – where the reason for their puzzling simultaneous closeness/distance gradually unravels. Kamila Shamsie’s War Letters has the recorded speech of Bhav Joshi and Adam Buksh in an exchange from Indian Army deployments during World War I over images projected on a four-screen panorama. Kei Miller’s England in a Split Blouse puts the audience in airline seats and eye masks in a darkened room while playing, with almost meditative effect, a recorded email exchange between two Jamaican women – Lorna Anders and Katrina Beckford – one of whom is concerned for her son’s welfare. Christos Tsiolkas’ Eve and Cain has two slaves – Charlene Boyd and Gavin Marshall – hurling messages at each other between Eve and her murderous son Cain over a great sea of sand. Put together, the show becomes a promenade only in the sense that you transport yourself on foot from space to space, no doubt to give time to digest each piece. Nevertheless the audience is clearly enraptured throughout the experience, which is neatly encapsulated in a deliciously unexpected postscript at the end. This production therefore successfully ticks all the right boxes. But what mars the whole effort is a uniform disregard on the part of directors Joe Douglas, Alice Nelson, Michael John McCarthy (sound only) and Ben Harrison for sightlines and audibility in every piece, which adds to a pervading sense that these literary/poetic texts – which at the end of the day are unremarkable in themselves – have been shoehorned into their slots with little consideration for theatre itself.  Nick Awde

Light   Pleasance Dome     ***
One thing Fringe veterans know about Theatre Ad Infinitum is that they're never going to repeat themselves. Two years ago they impressed Edinburgh with a touching and romantic piece of mask theatre, while last year they offered a brash cabaret about Israel and Palestine. And this year they present a literally dazzling exercise in bright lights and black darkness to address the topic of misused technology. Unfortunately Light, for all its technical brilliance, falls down in the basic areas of performance and simple storytelling. In a dystopian future a brain implant designed to allow telepathic communication is misused by its inventor for dictatorial mind control, while his wife and co-inventor leads the rebel forces and their son, a government rebel-hunter, is caught in the middle. The story is told in mime, with occasional surtitles, to a discordant soundscape, with faces and bodies caught in pin-spots or silhouette in short flashes of light on an otherwise dark stage. That fragmented mode interferes with narrative clarity, and writer-director George Mann errs further by straying from his main story into an overlong and unnecessarily detailed and slow-moving flashback in which the elder couple's romance and home life gets more attention than their invention and moral conflict. Meanwhile, the mime acting throughout is broad and grimace-filled, recalling the excesses of bad silent film acting and constantly threatening to turn into a parody of itself. Judging from conversations I heard on the way out, you are likely to be impressed by the stage technology and spectacle and not at all sure what the story was. At least one star in this rating goes to Theatre Ad Infinitum's courage and the visual effects, but judged as coherent drama and comment on an issue, this is a disappointment.  Gerald Berkowitz

Live Forever   Pleasance      ***
It's September 1997 and our hero is a wannabe novelist without inspiration until the Princess of Wales dies and Britain goes mad. Spotting a story in there somewhere, he rushes to London, wanders through the sea of flowers and teddy bears – is he the first to realise that all those flowers must have produced an overpowering smell? – finds himself surprisingly moved, gets over it, picks up a middle class woman on the run from her marriage and shares his cocaine and her bed, and, a few episodes later, leaves no closer to understanding the Dianamania or writing his novel. Robert Farquhar's script is saved from being just another dip into the Diana pool by its recognition that there is no clear explanation for the woman's hold, in life and death, on the national imagination but that, however cynical you want to be, there was something there. Directed by the playwright, actor Francis Tucker tells the tale with the enthusiasm and slight bewilderment of one who knows that it happened but is not quite sure what it was that happened, giving the hour the rhythms and energy of a bar room shaggy dog story told by an excellent raconteur.  Gerald Berkowitz

Lungs   Summerhall     ****
Lungs has had a prior life but richly deserves George Perrin's outstanding revival, which works perfectly in Summerhall's Roundabout space. Duncan Macmillan's two-hander immediately brings to mind Nick Payne's award-winning Constellations and easily lives up to the comparison. It focuses on a couple played by Siân Reese-Williams and Abdul Salis. The opening scene features a discussion about having babies that is unorthodox but credible. From there, the pair live a life in fast forward, balancing reflection and narrative drive with adept skill. Comedy and tragedy rub shoulders through the ups and downs of a modern relationship that is like a thrilling rollercoaster ride, bringing every emotion in equal measure. Macmillan runs through all of the likely variations of a relationship that doesn’t ever quite work out while always promising to do so, but so adept is his plotting that what on TV would seem soapy, draws in and satisfies its voyeuristic audience. Lungs is a well-written piece given deep meaning by a carefully considered, well-acted production.  Philip Fisher

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