Dear reader: this year I found myself, for the first time, appearing in a show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, while also (not the first time) having a short few days in the city to see as many shows as possible. A full article detailing my experiences of performing the show, and watching those others that I managed to catch, will follow, but for now here are quick reviews of the shows I saw which are still playing. I don’t give star ratings when reviewing a collection of pieces, as I believe it can give a misleading impression of how comparable the different shows are, so I’ll just tell you if I think the shows are worth seeing…
Casting the Runes (Theatre; Box Tale Soup)
The Space on the Mile, 18.05 hours until August 23rd, £10
Being an MR James fan, this adaptation of one of the more famous stories by the acknowledged master of the Edwardian ghost story (made still more influential by its previous adaptation as the 1957 Jacques Tourneur movie Night of the Demon) was right up my street. However, I was somewhat doubtful that this story, of a devoutly rationalist professor who seems to fall under some sort of curse after he publicly debunks the work of a noted occultist, could be rendered powerfully on stage – especially with only two actors (and some puppets) playing all the characters. But Box Tale Soup’s production is a triumph, delivering real emotional impact. The numerous characters are immaculately portrayed by the two actors, with the puppetry adding to rather than undercutting the chills, combined with an array of brilliantly deployed theatrical trickery, and the use of folk-style songs (performed live by the actors) to bind the disparate elements together into a unified story is inspired. If you’re in town, I urge you to see it while you still can (along with Box Tale Soup’s other show, Alice in Wonderland at The Space@North Bridge) – If you have read the story or seen the film, see it even so, as the material is brought to life in such a way as to make it entirely new (and James fans will enjoy spotting the crafty addition of a number of motifs from his other stories). Essential entertainment, as far as I’m concerned.
The Curing Room (Theatre; Stripped Down Productions)
Pleasance Dome, 12.00 hours until August 25th, £10.50/£12/£13
Even stronger meat here, and disturbingly based on true events: in 1944 Poland, seven Russian soldiers, captured by Nazis, were stripped of their clothes, locked in the cellar of a monastery and abandoned. When allied forces uncovered the cellar some time later, two of the men were alive, the rest – eaten. This new play, premiering at the Fringe following previews in London, speculates on what exactly happened between the seven men during the days and weeks of their imprisonment, and almost as oppressively, seven actors are trapped naked on stage for our uncomfortable entertainment for an hour and a half. This is a central gimmick which has surely contributed to the large (and, in my experience, starry) audiences who have been attending, and though the nudity emphasises both the vulnerability of the characters and the visceral horror of the cannibalism, until the play is adapted for radio it’s difficult to judge if the nudity is really essential to the piece. The gimmick is just about earned by the production, however, which is unrelievedly gripping. The actors (brilliantly cast – each with such a distinct look and voice that there is never any danger of getting them confused, despite the lack of clothes) are excellent, as the tension between the men’s need for dignity and a chain of command conflicts with their utter hopelessness. After a very exposition-heavy opening the script settles into an affecting study of men in the direst of situations, with rational discussions about the morality of survival gradually rising to a pitch of shocking horror (agonising scenes in which the men are forced to drink their own blood and semen are just the start), enlivened very occasionally by effective black humour. This is all backed up by powerfully stark use of music and lighting effects, as well as genuinely stomach-churning grue. It has to be said that there are a couple of plot developments that are somewhat unconvincing, and the production’s requirements of a large cast and believable gore effects has lead to a steep (for the Fringe) ticket price, but if you can stomach all that, The Curing Room is a powerful piece and therefore recommended. And I hope that radio adaptation happens – preferably with the same splendid cast.
Rebranding Beelzebub (Spoken word; Tim Ralphs)
The Banshee Labyrinth, 21.50 hours until August 24th, free or donations (PBH recommends £3)
To me, storytelling nights are near-mythical – I’d heard that they happen, usually in rooms above pubs, but had never attended one until this. Appropriately, myth is where Tim Ralph’s stories start. An award-winning storyteller with a regular night in Sheffield, he accosted me as I was leaving the Banshee Labyrinth (one of the city’s coolest, most arcane pubs, and an exciting centre of free spoken word and comedy at festival time) and tempted me with the promise of his new show, which is all about the Devil. I’m glad I bit. Ralphs’ stories begin in Mephistophelean folk tales but develop in his own quirky direction. There is a hint of Alan Bennett in the mundane settings and of Roald Dahl in the homely black humour, and the literally cavernous ‘Banqueting Hall’ of the Labyrinth is an ideal setting for chilling and chucklesome campfire tales. Don’t come if you’re expecting stand-up – a couple did, and left noisily after a few minutes – but if you want subtly clever stories that beguile you with their quiet power, do check out Mr Ralphs’ show.
Tim Clare: Be Kind to Yourself (Spoken word/comedy: Tim Clare)
The Banshee Labyrinth, 22.50 hours until August 24th, free or donations (PBH recommends £3)
Directly following Ralphs’ show, every night in the same room, is a different Tim whose show, in contrast, mixes spoken word, stand-up comedy, poetry and rap. Much of the autobiographical material is drawn (very humorously and accessibly) from Clare’s own struggles with his own crippling anxiety. Despite the fact that this very anxiety is frequently very visible in his stage manner (which he insists is not put-on for the act, and I believe him), this is a very confident show. Clare is a funny, dextrous, superbly energetic performance poet, and yet his spoken routines are almost as fluid. When it comes to hip-hop, he is a late convert and a casual fan, but he clearly loves the form and conquers it – the rap section is a highlight. I can confidently say you will have a great time with this show, and laugh throughout. There is a lot of virtuosity and intelligence on show here, but it’s the warmth and insight, particularly coming from Clare’s experiences teaching, that will stay with you after even the brilliant jokes and verses have faded. Highly recommended.
In the same venue I also saw Grave Invaders, in which Clare was joined by two other performance poet/rappers, Peterborough’s Mark Grist and MC Mixy, to relate stories of their shared pilgrimage to the graves of poets across the UK, and indulge in rap-offs while improbably dressed as monsters. It sounds slapdash, but was great fun. Sadly its run has now finished, but I believe Grist and Mixy – who can give Clare a run for his money in terms of charm and lyricism – have another show in the free fringe still running. I haven’t been able to find further details, but it’s worth asking after them at the Banshee.
Tom Short and Will Hutchby: Only Child Syndrome (Stand-up)
Just the Tonic at the Mash House, 23.00 hours until August 24th, £4
If you are looking for some more traditional stand-up, this show in the non-free Fringe is very good value. These two young comedians from Greater Manchester have half an hour each to wax lyrical about the trials and traumas of growing up. Each brings something different to the undertaking: Hutchby, also an actor, gripes appealingly about the consequences of coming from a working-class Irish background but being locked by a public-school education into an upper-crust accent (and typecasting), and therefore expands his material entertainingly to feature comedy sketches in which he energetically plays all the characters with a variety of voices. His sketches are inventively offbeat, and he has a winning charm which makes even the most unsavoury stories amusing. Short, coming across as the king of geek anti-chic, delivers even edgier material with a kind of balletic awkwardness, throwing in inspired, dangerous-seeming slapstick. To go into more detail would spoil the routines, but basically, see it – it’s a very satisfying stand-up show.
In other words, they’re all great! More detailed reflections, including on the shows I’ve seen that are no longer running (and the one I was in), will follow soon,