The Weirdest-Sounding Shit at the Edinburgh Fringe 2014

Don’t get me wrong, the Fringe is the best culture festival in the world. But it’s also an Alien-style mass hatching ground for future Mock the Week panellists who, given half the chance, will sneak up on you, plaster themselves over your eyeballs and violently force their way down your gullet.

To cut through the scuttling scrum for eyeballs and eardrums, performers venture further and further into both the avant-garde and the offensive, devising ever more unusual subjects, daft show names and experimental concepts. Some of it is brilliant. Some of it is shite. A lot of it sounds like an in-joke from The Mighty Boosh. Improvised comedy in the style of Jane Austen? An absurdist collective that dances badly to exaggerated French music? Both genuine shows at this year’s Fringe.

So, after extensive trawling, here are the 10 most ridiculous, pretentious and downright weird-sounding shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2014.

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The 39 Steps @ The Criterion

The Criterion Theatre, hidden under London’s Piccadilly Circus, is a glorious relic of Victorian excess. From the faded red velvet curtains to the cherubs that spill across an extravagantly ornate ceiling, the decor is an intriguing mix of gaudy music-hall glamour and opulent high aestheticism. The onset of slight shabbiness only adds to its antiquated charm.

Practically and stylistically, the venue is also perfectly suited to Fiery Angel’s wonderfully inventive reimagining of The 39 Steps. The play features two scenes in a London music hall, allowing the staging to open up into the auditorium and involve some tongue-in-cheek audience participation. Moreover, the surroundings lend themselves to director Maria Aitkin’s evocation of a once wealthy London in post-WWI decline, and to the production’s bawdy, theatrical brand of comedy.

The plot draws heavily on Hitchcock’s 1935 film, rather than the earlier novel. Returning to Blighty from a stint overseas, quiet-living über-Englishman Richard Hannay (Andrew Alexander) finds himself wrongfully accused of murder and embroiled in a treasonous plot. On the run, searching for the truth and inconveniently chained to a disobliging blonde, Hannay is pursued from London to the windy Scottish highlands by inept police, corrupt officials and a stern Scottish farmer with an impenetrable accent and a lustful young wife.

Catherine Bailey plays all three love interests – with enough skill that it took me a while to realise this – whilst all other roles are handled by the hilarious Stephen Critchlow and Ian Hughes. Much of the humour is drawn from watching the pair switch rapidly between villains, newspaper sellers, milkmen, train passengers, B&B owners and more, occasionally even conducting conversations with themselves in the process. In one memorable scene, A nightie-clad old lady (Critchlow) argues with a policemen at the door (also Critchlow), before spinning round to continue the argument as the policeman and revealing a completely different costume on the other side of his body. The production fully embraces these farcical elements, frequently making self-conscious jokes about the limitations of the props and set and, in an intriguingly post-modernist twist, actually scripting in mistakes and late cues for added comedy.

Despite poking fun at the mock-simplicity of the set, the technical elements of the production and the ingenuity of the cast, director and set designers are evident. The shadow-puppet sequences that replace complicated chase and crowd scenes are amusingly childlike, but also perfectly realised and surprisingly effective. At the heart of the production is a wry reference to the artifice essential to ‘realist’ theatre (and film) and a refusal to allow the audience to engage fully with this artifice. In doing so, the production frustrates any attempt to become emotionally vested in the play – tension, empathy, relief are all dissipated by the reminder that what we are seeing is blatant construction – but it does make for very entertaining viewing. For all its slapstick silliness, The 39 Steps provides a sophisticated comic reaction to immersive drama; one in which the puppets wilfully point out the strings.

39 Steps - Poster

What We’re Up Against (Review)

Aorta Theatre Collective presents a vibrant selection of scenes from Theresa Rebeck’s catalogue of razor sharp social satire.

Directed by Rob Hale

New York playwright, ‘relapsed Catholic’ and artful social commentator Theresa Rebeck has a back catalogue as long as your arm of acutely, playfully, hilariously observed satire. Evidently fascinated by the minutiae of human foibles, prejudices, mundane neuroses and twisted logic, her work is a masterclass of witty, energetic dialogue, bizarre non-sequiturs and heightened reality.

With this in mind, it is difficult to imagine how on earth Rebeck, in her own words, very nearly “fell off the map” following a scandalously misogynistic review of The Butterfly Collection in the New York Times in 2000. Despite the outrage of the theatre community and a flurry of complaints to the newspaper, this bad press forced the play to close and, for a time, it was seriously suggested that Rebeck either write under a male pseudonym or just “do something else”.

Thankfully, Rebeck hit back with a raft of superb plays including Mauritius, Bad Dates and the co-written Omnium Gatherum, even attracting a Pulitzer nomination for the latter. She also demonstrated that she could, in fact, “do something else”, by publishing an acclaimed novel, Three Girls and Their Brother, and writing the forthcoming series Smash for NBC – to be directed by Michael Mayer and produced by Stephen Spielberg, no less.

The seven scenes selected for What We’re Up Against, deftly handled by a highly competent cast, encompass issues as diverse as workplace misogyny, funeral parlour mix-ups and a struggling actor who would rather be a barman. All share the sense of quiet desperation that Rebeck specialises in, which infuses the comedy and humanises characters that are, on the face of it, rather unsympathetic.

Each scene is interspersed by shorter pieces from Rebeck’s one act play Mary, Mother of God, Intercede for Us, which shows a harangued, business-suited Virgin Mary, played by the excellent Juliet Prague, overrun by prayer ‘dockets’ and passing on requests of varying urgency and poignancy to a seemingly indifferent God – via the divine medium of her mobile phone.

As the play progresses, this juxtaposition becomes increasingly astute; subtle shifts in the performances between self-interested egotism and overwhelming emotional fragility are intensified by Mary’s increasing despair and rage at the arbitrary way her messages are dealt with- and her powerlessness to influence these decisions. Here, as in countless other examples of her work, Rebeck skilfully takes an exhausted argument and breathes fresh life into it through an imaginative, surprising and highly visual approach.

The cast are infectiously energetic, with Sally Scott’s barely concealed hysteria making for a particularly charged and engaging performance, but at times it felt that more variation in tone could enhance their effectiveness. The more muted delivery by Michael Benz and Tom Cornish in the funeral parlour scene created perfectly balanced tension between restrained fury and agonising grief, but Demi Oyedin, perhaps feeling a little underused, offered a forceful performance that proved slightly too overbearing for such an intimate space. The comic delivery, however, was spot on throughout, frequently leaving the audience helpless with laughter.

What We’re Up Against provides an excellent and intelligent interpretation of some of Rebeck’s finest pieces and the central throughline that binds together her work and ideas. For those unfamiliar with her work, Rob Hale’s selection also offers a perfect introduction to this extremely important contemporary playwright. Not to be missed.

****

The Old Red Lion Theatre, Angel. 8th Feb -3rd Mar 2011.