Best of the Fest
Reviews: Our team’s pick of the Fringe shows to see this week.
Circus – Atomic Saloon Show (Assembly George Square, *****)
In case anyone wanders in ill-prepared for the kind of content in store, Atomic Saloon Show’s opening number says it all. Far too rude to quote here, but both funny and beautifully sung by sequin-clad, guitarplaying cowboy Colin Cahill, it causes one couple to get up and leave - which is probably for the best.
Then out comes Petra Massey, our whip-cracking host/madam for this evening of Wild West entertainment. When she’s not changing from one fabulous costume into another (usually with a crotch that billows smoke in response to the buff bodies surrounding her - yes, it’s that kind of show), then she’s trying aimlessly to keep romance out of her bordello.
One by one, Massey introduces us to a cast of characters who both add to the narrative and deliver superb circus routines.
Irish dance duo Peter Harding and Suzanne Cleary, as the redneck cousins, show off their fast-paced hand and foot work. Strong and graceful pole-dancer Alina Shpynova’s sweet relationship with the shy cleaning boy (also a crack aerialist), has us all rooting for them. Pavel Stankevych strides on stage as the “Mayor”, then executes a hand-balancing routine of pure dexterity.
As the town “reverend”, Garry Starr’s inability to keep his clothes on is as deliciously inappropriate as the “nun” who does things with a ping pong ball Mother Superior would definitely disapprove of. All these and more deliver a production that clearly hasn’t skimped on design, costume or personnel.
No circus show can offer wall-to-wall thrills, it would be exhausting for both the performers and audience. But while many struggle to pad out the acrobatics and aerial with content that’s engaging, Atomic Saloon Show is a perfect example of what you can achieve when you bring in a truly talented director to pull it all together - in this case, Cal McCrystal.
There’s so much talent on stage here, and McCrystal knew exactly what to do with it. Clever, hilarious, gorgeous to look at, and without a single second of padding, Atomic Saloon Show is heading to Las Vegas for the next year - they’re in for a treat.
Comedy – Jessica Fostekew: Hench (Monkey Barrel Comedy, ****)
Concurrent with building up her body, positively, for the first time, with Hench, Jessica Fostekew is doing some heavier lifting with her stand-up as well. The ascension hasn’t been easy.
Weight-training has been empowering and revealing for a comic who has always had mixed feelings about her strength - exemplified by the clumsily flirtatious, traditionally masculine appraisal she attracted at the gym, from which this thoughtful show takes its title. “Thank you for my compliment!” she cries in a mock-gratitude wail that becomes the show’s refrain.
Oppressed by conventional attitudes towards women’s body shapes, expressed by her mother, personal trainer and the diet industry, she realises that she’s nevertheless evolving, finding humour in the situations where she’s slightly ahead of, or behind, society’s curve.
Secure in the knowledge that, for all her insecurity about her size, she was a strong and free-thinking mother-to-be, Fostekew opted for a hippyish, hypnobirth without drugs. Such was her smug assurance that you can foresee the hubris immediately. Yet Fostekew excels in capturing her own dawning horror as her carefully laid plans are tossed aside, her preconceptions about her body’s capabilities taking a significant battering.
A brilliant piece of storytelling, where she can be wise after the fact, it finds its companion piece in her trying to raise her son respectfully feminist and gender neutral. Thwarted by her family and the boy’s natural monstrosity, she winningly conveys her love-hate feelings for him.
While her own ideas are nuanced, Fostekew is scornful of the basic narratives of the diet industry and scathing about attacks on trans and intersex athletes.
And she highlights the lie of power and endurance being masculine traits with a withering protest at male genitals being seen as synonymous with strength.
Children’s Shows – Comète (Assembly Checkpoint, ****)
It’s never too early for musicloving parents to get their kids in the gig-going habit, as demonstrated by Belgian indie band Comète, who are rocking child-friendly early mornings at Assembly Checkpoint throughout the Fringe.
If there is a more joyful way to start your Fringe day, I have yet to encounter it.
The premise is simple: this most likeable fourpiece band play a regular set of varied covers drawn from the rock, pop and indie canon for an audience of children and their accompanying adults.
There is no talking down to the children, no specifically pitched kids’ tunes and no proscription of behaviour, as the assumption is that children and parents know how to have fun and express themselves to a rocking tune - in fact, a brother and sister who clearly knew the score were bopping in front of the stage from the moment the group fired off their take on The Beatles’ I Want to Hold Your Hand.
This is the first of many astutely chosen melodic standards, all played at a decent but not punishing volume - no need for baby ear defenders here.
Hot Chip’s Over and Overmakes for irresistible dancefloor fodder, there is happy anarchy in the toddler moshpit during The Clash’s Should I Stay Or Should I Go and ridiculously catchy Europop selections from Stereo Total’s Musique Automatique to Trio’s Da Da Da.
Age guidance suggests the show is most suitable for the over-5s but, in reality, younger siblings are just as engaged in the important business of pogoing, twisting, clapping, swaying and waving those phone lights along.
Bouncing babies on their parents’ shoulders join the joyful throng on the dancefloor.
The fun is over far too soon but Comète are called back for that time-honoured encore and we are treated to a rendition of Serge Gainsbourg’s Eurovision classic Poupée de cire, Poupée de son which, like the rest of the show, was sheer delight.
Fishbowl (Pleasance Courtyard, ****)
Judging by the packed full house in one of the largest non-traditional festival spaces in Edinburgh during August, this established French comedy hit - and winner of the Molière Award for Best Comedy Play in 2017 - needs no additional boost upon its transfer to the UK. Yet it’s worth taking time to eulogise it anyway, because this is a perfectly-pitched piece of physical character comedy; as wonderfully light and accessible as an Ealing comedy, yet with a sharp edge and moments of real emotional power and occasional Pythonesque darkness.
Set amid the particularlystyled attic bedsits of Paris, three people live in closetsized rooms adjacent to one another. One (Olivier Martin-Salvan) is a burly man with the comedically grandiose air of Matt Berry about him, who lives in a hermetic white apartment with a toilet which is summoned from under the bed by a handclap; the second, Pierre Guillois, a slovenly, professoriallooking gent who lives amid squalor and owns an incredibly unfortunate goldfish; and the third, Agathe L’Huillier’s just-arrived young woman, whom the other pair are predictably smitten by, despite her inability to deliver beauty treatments which are anything but dangerous. All three apartments, plus stairway, communal toilet and a roof which sees some hair-raising action, are built together in one claustrophobic set, and the way the cast interact between them is a joy to uncover; with, for example, Martin-Salvan’s character stealing Guillois’ food through the ventilation hatch, to the latter’s confusion, or a bravura moment of mistaken peeping tom identity which manages to boil the sleaziness out of the genuine comedy of Benny Hill.
Masterfully related in few words, this joyously universal work runs the gamut from toilet humour (in a very literal sense) to the sad, austere juxtaposition of the starving Guillois debating eating his pet rabbit while the other pair begin a romance, to an ultimately very charming look at the bonds of community which form between strangers who have been thrown together by their choice of address. It seems inevitable that it will be viewed as one of this year’s big successes.
Comedy – Desiree Burch: Desiree’s Coming Early! (Heroes @ The Hive, ***)
The indomitable badass writer/performer Desiree Burch returns with a 100 miles-an-hour heightened tale of her search for enlightenment in the desert. Sounds like she lost herself rather than found herself in most entertaining style.
Anyone who knows anything about the Burning Man festival - a seven-day escapist odyssey in the Californian desert based on a sharing economy - or about festivals in general will not be surprised to find that sex and substances figure strongly in Burch’s account. She goes in search of the former and ends up with the latter, gets off her tits, then shows off her tits. Along the merry way, she pulls off handbrake turns into musings on the magical negro trope and the tainted legacy of Michael Jackson.
In the end, her tale is not actually that spectacular - it’s an extended, entertaining festival war story which doesn’t particularly dovetail with her side recitations.
But the content is only part of the Desiree Burch experience - her ultraconfident delivery, powerful charismatic presence and eloquent ability to entertain and educate at the same time is what makes this another absorbing hour in her whirlwind company.
Cabaret – An Evening Without Kate Bush (PBH’s Free Fringe @ Voodoo Rooms, ****)
Sarah-Louise Young has wowed Fringe cabaret audiences with hugely accomplished musical charactercomedy work - notably tragic, knife-clutching chanteuse La Poule Plombée - and an affectionate tribute to Julie Andrews, Julie Madly Deeply. An Evening without Kate Bush is another tribute show, that stands out in two distinct ways: first, Young’s extraordinary vocal work in channeling the strange, beautiful “siren call” of Bush’s voice; and second, the thoughtful and caring attention it pays to her music’s capacity to forge community. This plays out in both the content of the show - studded with quirky and touching nuggets of information about the singer’s global fandom - and in its form, which shapes the performance space itself into a shared site of empathy and appreciation. Without doubt, you don’t need to be a Kate Bush fan to be transported into something very special.
Young enters the stage veiled in black and, as the music starts, you have to double check whether she’s miming to the original music or singing live. She really captures the swooping, keening timbre of Bush’s voice, its flutter and pout and wail. The looks are spot-on too, from tumbling red wigs to feathered headpieces. And Young also anatomises those distinctive dance moves, from “champagne whipcrack” to “sneaky cat”.
Early on, Young tells us the show is less about Bush’s life and more about the deep meaning her work has for so many. Even the most bizarre aspects of fandom are treated with fondness. Meanwhile, Young and director Russell Lucas build the love within the room. We howl along to The Hounds of Love and a few of us are invited to do more, sometimes to deeply moving effect. The classics are delivered with panache and, often, memorable twists. But the magic lies in the fusion of Bush’s talent with Young’s in the service of connection near and far.
Theatre – Lucy McCormick: Post Popular (Pleasance Courtyard, *****)
“I do historical reenactments,” Lucy McCormick offers at the top of her new show. This is true, sort of, though audiences who witnessed the gloriously obscene account of the life of Christ given in McCormick’s 2016 show, Triple Threat, might feel it doesn’t quite cover the bases.
Post Popular takes broadly the same approach as that show: McCormick is front and centre, voraciously dynamic and mildly delusional, walking us through her process as she brings the past to life, backed by two sexy-deadpan dancer-stooges (Samir Kennedy and Rhys Hollis). This time round, the subject is “all the famous women in history”. Who, McCormick wonders, “is going to inspire me so I can inspire you?” So unfolds a ridiculous romp through several millennia of female empowerment, from the Garden of Eden to the Suffragettes, realised through formal approaches ranging from comic monologues and preposterous choreography to bin-bag couture and splattered condiments. It’s part Karen Finley, part National Theatre of Brent. McCormick’s persona is the heart of the show, unabashedly self-aggrandising and charismatically domineering yet flecked with insecurity and self-loathing.
A superb clown, she also dances and sings terrifically; there’s witty use of music throughout, including Chaka Khan, Cat Stevens and Mariah Carey. But the dynamic between McCormick and the audience is also crucial, manoeuvring through offthe-cuff rapport and parodic trust games to more ambitious use of the crowd as part of the historical scenery, as regimented troops or a baying mob.
The show’s uses of history are often deceptively savvy and shrewd, with on-point observations gliding below the chaotic surface.
Indeed, the delight of Post Popular, which is directed by Ursula Martinez, is its breathless yet utterly assured pivoting between wildly varying registers.
Orifice-based slapstick sits alongside stiletto-sharp wit; boredom, slowness and insecurity have their place next to bravura entertainment and edge-of-the-seat emotion.
You might not be surprised by the show’s failure to account for every significant woman in the history of the world, but you might be by its balancing act of funny and vulgar, vulnerable and sharpeyed, savage and sweet.