Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A few quick Edinburgh Fringe reviews

I've come to the conclusion that a visit to the Edinburgh Fringe is a metaphor for life - you start by thinking about what you really want to do, but then you work out what is actually available and practically possible, settle for that instead, and ultimately come to the conclusion that it was probably just as well it worked out that way after all.

Here are my very quick impressions of the four shows I've ended up seeing so far, in a couple of cases more or less by accident -

EUGENIE GRANDET : Just getting into the room for this one was a bit of an ordeal, because I had to make a wild stab at guessing how 'Eugenie Grandet' is actually pronounced in order to buy the tickets. I was absolutely gutted to discover that I had pronounced it perfectly, only for the woman at the box office to still look utterly baffled. "Are you sure it's on at this venue?" she asked, before eventually sheepishly telling me "I thought you said Jenny!" Still, French pronunciation is one thing - it's beyond me how anyone ever plucks up the courage to buy tickets for shows with sexually-explicit titles (and it's not as if those are in short supply).

I've never read the novel by Balzac, so I've no idea how faithful this adaptation is, but I would imagine it's reasonably close. Jo Hartland is superb as the title character, although the real star of the show is a remarkably versatile table which does all manner of things that a table really shouldn't be doing. It had me severely worried at one point when it was precariously balanced against a chair, and carefree acting was carrying on underneath it. I reassured myself with the thought that it was probably a lightweight 'stunt' table, but Hartland later walked on top of it and it supported her weight. In a nutshell, this is not a show that health and safety inspectors will appreciate. RATING : 8/10

FOREST : Well, this is an oddity. A girl who is scared of tomorrow wakes up in a forest, and is comforted by an assortment of men (and one woman) unconvincingly dressed up as animals. The basic idea is vaguely reminiscent of last year's utterly brilliant The Girl With No Heart, but unfortunately this production just isn't in the same class. I'm not even entirely clear what the allegory is supposed to be - my best guess is that it's something to do with the cyclical process of children who are afraid of growing up and of being abandoned eventually becoming parents and protectors themselves. But it might just as easily be an allegory about ketchup.

The young actors are all delightful, though, and it's hard to imagine that they could make much more of the material they are working with. This is also a show in the truest tradition of the Fringe - seven actors and an audience of about a dozen crammed into a room not much bigger than a broom cupboard. RATING : 6/10

LOOK BACK IN ANGER : There are two productions of John Osborne's classic play running at this year's Fringe - I went to the one by a group of Oxford University students, simply because the time of day was more convenient. In almost every respect it's a wonderful version, although it's just ever so slightly spoilt by the fact that the actor playing Jimmy Porter is miscast. The precision of his speech and movement almost makes it seem like a carefully choreographed dance performance, rather than a performance that attempts to capture the spontaneous anger of the quintessential angry young man. The problem is much more noticeable in the earlier part of the play which is so dominated by Jimmy's ranting - the production comes into its own later on when the other characters start to be fleshed out.

As I'm always being told by apologists for the Oxbridge system that you simply can't move in Oxford University for all the state school pupils, I was going to make a snide comment about an Oxford company only being able to find one actor with a working-class accent for a play that requires two. Full disclosure, though - I was taken by surprise at the end when the actress who plays plummy-accented Helena spoke with her own voice, and turned out to be Irish (I think). RATING : 8/10

CHERRY ON TOP : It was a choice of cherries for me - I was veering towards seeing a version of The Cherry Orchard set in 1980s Durham, but when I realised that I might miss my train home I went for the contemporary comedy Cherry on Top instead. One of the fascinations of it is that it stars two leading actresses from the Indian community in South Africa. It dawned on me that, although I've always been aware of that community's existence, I know next to nothing about it.

It's a choice of cherries for the male character in the play as well - although he's not so much a character as a bulge under a blanket. Before ending up in a coma, his term of endearment for both his wife and his mistress had been "cherry", and the story revolves around what happens when the two women encounter each other at his hospital bedside.

The jokes don't really do it for me on the whole, which is probably a culture clash thing - they seem a bit too obvious. Actually, the best ones are those that aren't played solely for laughs, eg. "I poisoned him with this. It's untraceable. I'm joking. It's traceable." But can a comedy work even if you don't find the jokes particularly funny? In this case I think so, because the story works, and is acted out vivaciously and with total conviction. RATING : 8/10

So which of the four would I recommend? I think Cherry on Top has it by a nose over Eugenie Grandet and Look Back in Anger, although you'll have to get your skates on if you want to see it - it's only on until Saturday.

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