Our month long trip in Scotland ended with 8 days at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This year at the Fringe, there were 258 venues, 2542 different productions (plays, musicals, comedy acts, dance, cabaret, music of all types), about 1300 performances a day, 21+K performers from around the world & over 1M visitors for the 3.5 weeks. (There are also thousands more who come just for the International Book Festival occurring at the same time, thousands who attend nightly the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and thousands attending the official International Arts Festival.) Add to all this street performers on every corner and block, temporary outdoor pubs, cafes & nightclubs throughout the performance venues -- and you have quite the Festival indeed. (All of this, by the way, is within a half-hour walking distance from all the rest.)
In Edinburgh we saw 40 shows, 36 of which were theatrical productions. They varied in length from 1 hour to 3 hours, with most being 75-90 minutes long. The shows we saw were from many countries; all but one was in English (but sometimes with such a Scottish/British dialect that it seemed they were in a foreign tongue). Performers ranged from university students (one group, from high school) to young actors recently graduated to fully professional & seasoned actors. A number of the solo performers (and some of those in ensembles) were well-known stage/TV/film actors in the UK, Australia, and Canada. (While we mostly saw plays, we met some folks who did almost the same number of events but came just to see comedians.)
I have positioned the reviews in the order of our most favorite to least favorite things. We go expecting to see a wide range of quality, but overall, we were astounded how good the shows we saw were. A number of productions we saw we would love to see produced/come to the SF Bay Area and hope we can help that to happen through some bridging. We gave a number of performers/producers ideas of whom to contact in the Bay Area about possible venues.
So, if you are game and interested, read on for the details. If you have further questions about any one production, let us know. We may have more information on many of the shows or know where we can get it.
THE VERY BEST OF WHAT WE SAW (5 out of 5 stars):
1. The very best show we saw is the dramatic oratorio "From the Fire," written in honor of the centennial of the NY Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. A NYC cast of 15 sung and acted this moving, important tragedy where we meet the young immigrants soon to become martyrs for workers' rights. The versatile set, the backdrop of actual photos, the incredible voices & acting, and the compelling story make this a production that should be seen widely.
2. From LA's 'Theatre Movement Bazaar' comes an outstanding, funny, memorizing new work "Vanya's Uncles" about the men of Chekhov's 'Uncle Vanya.' Their empty, building-houses-out-of-cards lives sans the play’s women characters are told through amazing acting & choreographed movement. New York quality all around.
3. The classic film 'A Clockwork Orange' of my college years comes to the stage direct from London in a breath taking, reworked for a new generation, all-male production. In this age of gang violence & presence in every city globally, the effect is more powerful than ever. Stunning, violent yet erotic choreography leaves the audience in awe. This Anthony Burgess story is presented by the cutting edge theatre troupe Action To The Word
4. Performed in Welsh (with English subtitles), Cardiff's Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru's professional, beautifully staged "Llwyth (Tribe)" explores in comedy and tears what it means to belong and to be in relationship -- with friends, lovers, family & roots. The play's 5 gay characters tug at their and your heartstrings, accompanied by occasional Welsh music from an unseen, mixed choir of 12. Looking back, one of my personal favorites of the Festival.
5. Entering an attic full of boyhood treasures, draped ceiling & walls, stored furniture, trunks & cushions (on which we sat), & many dusty & loved memories, a Peter-Pan-like boy in his pajamas greets us in his high, innocent voice & treats us immediately as his special friends. We face with him and his older self the loss of boyhood; and the finale, devastating realization left many of us weeping and hugging the strangers around us. "The Boy James" is an hour I will never forget.
6. Set in war-time London, Pants on Fire (from London) brings to bear film, actors who all play multiple instruments, puppetry, terrific voices, ingenuous use of rolling/rotating panels & many other creative techniques to retell "Ovid's Metamorphosis." Making parallels between the hardships & bravery (& the quick love & lust) of war-weary Londoners and between the rivals/wars/jealousies/loves of the gods is done to the delight & awe of the audience.
7. Nothing short of a tour-d'-force is the performance of Guy Masterson in "Shylock," an historical look at this famed, much-maligned Shakespearean character, as told by his only friend in the play, Tubal (& the only other Jew in all of Shakespeare). As the history of who has played this character & how is related, we also see reenacted Shylock's part of "Merchant." Very educational. Very powerful.
8. Acclaimed film actor Silas Carson delivers in intricate, beautiful rhyme his life story of living in duo worlds: a mother from India & a father from the UK and an increasing awareness of being bi. Through a childhood memory of encountering some of India's Hijras in Calcutta, he pieces together whom he really is as one who 'lives neither here nor there.' "Eunuchs in My Wardrobe" is an important piece of work, esp. for the gay world who often ridicule those who claim to be 'bi.'
9. Another entry from NYC (Banana Bags & Bodice), "Beowulf, A Thousand Years of Baggage" is a riotous adaptation of this epic poem in a high-energy song play. The 7-piece band provides a bombastic score ranging from kletzmer to New Orleans jazz to rock & ballad; and the superb cast of singers/actors sells the cheering audience all along the way. The audience leaves laughing and clapping with hearts soaring from a wonderful, theatrical journey back in time.
10. Totally transfixed, we watched Enebro Teatro's "Devotion" as a bullfighter is dressed and readied for his 1st life & death dance in the arena. With a live Spanish guitar as background, the actors hold the audience in absolute, breathless captivity.
11. 25 guys of the London Gay Men’s Chorusare the talented cast of their original musical "Little Shop of Homos," re: crisis at the only dept. store in UK catering just to gays. A gay/straight world is made messy by the metro-sexual, whose good tastes mimic those of gays. Can the store (Hardee Dick's) now sell to straights, too? Can their one straight store clerk have the courage to 'come out'? Great book of puns and punches; terrific lyrics; beautiful voices.
12. For 2-3 years, we have avoided spending one of our precious, annual NYC play slots on the long-running "My Big, Gay, Italian Wedding." But since we had our friend Carlo with us at Fringe (who fits the title's description), we 'attended the ceremony' here. And believe you me; a GREAT time was had by all. We laughed more than at any other show we saw at the Fringe. Great cast kept is in stitches.
Earlier when we were in Glasgow we attend 2 other plays. I would also put in the above list of the "Best of the Bunch," one of which was on its way to be a part of the Fringe.
--> Lee Hall's "The Pitman Painters" is an incredible evening of theater about the true 1934-1947 story of miners who become acclaimed artists while continuing their lives as miners. Hall's "Billy Elliot" already has taken the world by storm; and this play (which had a brief B'Way run last autumn) will be seen far and wide in the coming years, I am sure (including next year at our own TheatreWorks.)
--> The National Theatre of Scotland produced a fun and haunting "The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart" with a setting in a pub (where the audience sits and participates as part of the set) and a talented set of actors who also play and sing Scottish ballads along the way. The play itself is a ballad-like story set in modern times as a young woman gets lost and stumbles upon the devil himself. This same 2.5-hour production and cast were a part of the Fringe Festival, where the reviewers bestowed it with many highest reviews.
13. A world premiere, true-story musical about a Northern Ireland gay rugby team ("Scene of the Titans") is fun, moving & inspirational. Performed by St. Andrews Academy (of Prince Charles fame), the musical has promise for the future if its lyrics & songs can be re-worked a bit more. A professional, full production could be a winner.
14. Oscar Wilde's fairy tale "Star Child" magically comes to life in this Liverpool group's critically acclaimed adaptation. Actors become scenery, animals & characters as they tell, sing, sculpt and dance this tale. Enchanting.
15. What could have been just schmaltz is in fact a wonderful celebration of the joys, aches, sorrows & regrets of one of America's most-loved stars, Doris Day, in England's "A Sentimental Journey." As told by her now-passed son (in 2004), the musical is full of song and a life of drama that is almost unbelievable. The cast is superb, and the lead IS Doris Day in every manner imaginable. (Coming to LA this fall.).
16. I remember fondly studying "Moll Flanders" in college (the 1st novel ever written) and was delighted to see that a full, 2.5-hour production of it as a new play was on the Fringe bill. The Edinburgh Theatre Arts delivers well in this Claire Luckman creation. Threaded by songs and music in keeping with 18th century Eng., the large cast draws us into the often funny, often tragic, ultimately happy life of Moll.
17. London playwright Richard Fry creates and presents a heart-breaking look at gay suicides in the UK in his poetic "The Ballad of the Unbeatable Hearts." Written to present in schools across the country, his fantasy piece draws the audience into a story whose tragic ending is all too familiar in today's world.
EXCELLENT SHOWS WE WOULD NOT HAVE WANTED TO MISS (4 out of 5 stars)
18. Having just seen Jez Butterworth's highly acclaimed (& highly rated by me, btw) "Jerusalem" in New York, we were anxious to see his 1995 Olivier-winning comedy "Mojo" here at the Fringe. This 50's London gangster play that swirls in murders, mystery, triangle relationships & the birth of rock 'n roll is fast, fun, and furious. (The heavy accents, however, make if impossible to catch every line.)
19. On a Fringe day of otherwise serious, heavy works came just in time a new, totally fun musical "Fresher" -- a romp through the first week at university for 5 diverse kids forced into a dorm suite together. Fantastic voices and clever lyrics draw us into the stormy forming of a group of soon to-be best college buds.
20. An Edinburgh troupe offers "Cock & Bull Story," a hard hitting, very physical play re: the homophobic world of boxing. 2 best mates prepare 1 for the fight of his life, peppered with physical play & camaraderie & talk of gay bashing. Something does not quite fit, though, in their homophobic banter; the audience is left to fill in the blanks at the end. Great piece for follow-up discussion. The heavy Scottish dialect unfortunately was beyond our US ears.
21. Wajdi Mouawad's (2011 Best Foreign Pic Nominee) 2nd show at the Fringe, "Alphonse" is a fascinating fantasy created in a 13-year boy's mind where his dreams of a world where he can be whatever he wants to be overtakes his day-to-day world of school & home life. This Canadian hit production speaks to every age (a 5-yr. old boy sat entranced in our mostly adult audience) and urges us each never to accept a dull day in our lives.
22. "Laundry Boy" is a fantastical, psychological probing of one man's struggle to face the reality of a mother who showed him little love. Escaping into a world of super heroes & villains who live within his own dream world, this man, still boy searches for love & self-acceptance. Powerful drama with a strong thread of comic relief.
23. Marc Almond (of 80s rock star fame, Soft Cell) performs in rather strange & haunting voice Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre's world premiere of the musical "Ten Plagues." With a libretto based on written accounts from London's 17th century Black Death when over 100K people died in a few short months, the play's modern, smartly projected set quickly lead the audience to parallels with our own AIDS plague.
GOOD SHOWS BUT NEED SOME WORK (& We Still Really Enjoyed Them) (3 & 3.5 out of 5 stars)
24. A cast of 6 accomplished LA actors of stage & screen bring Paul Thomas' "The Presentment," an indictment on the hateful, narrow mindedness of today's more conservative clergy & churches. While a bit too formula/TV drama-of-the-week in composition, the production's actors in the end make the evening powerful & worthwhile.
25. Traps we fall into time and again as we avoid real, human connections and run from our own demons are examined in Ravenhill's "Shopping and F***ing." Another very serious (but also bitingly funny at times) look at how hard it is to live the love lives we humans often seek. The play mostly delivers but the extremes it goes to at times also makes (for me) it harder to empathize and connect to the characters.
26. For a packed audience of 100s, one of Britain's greatest actors, Simon Callow, stars in 'Tuesday at Tescos' as Pauline, a transgendered woman caring for her recently widower father. The performance is beyond description as we witness a creation still in progress. An abrupt, harsh ending negates the play's uplifting message to that point and leaves the audience puzzled and dismayed.
27. Poland's Teatr Wiczy brings a one-person show "I, the Dictator" re: the true dilemma as Charlie Chaplin finds his move from silent to sound movies & about the fantasized, what-if dilemma of an offer coming to him in '39 from Hitler's film czar to provide funds and 'freedom' galore. Through mime, tap, actions, & spoken word, actor Krystian Wiecznski explores the psychological underpinnings of Chaplin -- sometimes successfully, sometimes in a bazaar fashion.
28. 'Hit Comet' is one of 70+ entrants in the annual contest among university groups vying for London stage production. 5 comedians came together as actors to tell the story of a multinational corporation dominating the lucrative market of pop music as they create on-stage the next hit to fool the fans with. Solid, but more like a sitcom on TV.
29. From the London group Dumbshow of writers/actors/directors comes the fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek "Oedipus, a Love Story," a retelling of the kill-the-father, marry-the-mother classic tale as witnessed in this case by a flock of Welsh sheep. Very Fringe, very fun. The 4 young actors play multiple parts with much aplomb and skill in this twisted tale of love and fate.
SHOWS WITH SOME MERIT, BUT WE COULD"VE DONE BETTER (2.5 out of 5 stars)
30. Imagine an hour of one man (the multi-award winning, Canadian actor Alon Nashman) telling as Franz Kafka the scores of ways his father neglected, ridiculed, taunted him (in "Kafka and Son"). Add a setting that reminds one of a concentration camp. While this production has actually already won many awards in several countries, we found it to be tedious & repetitive.
31. Japanese "Phantom" star Jun Sawaki brings his home country's sell-out "Toulouse-Lautrec, The Musical" to Edinburgh. The one-man show is intriguing at times but adds little to an already well-known (at least by us) life story. In fact, it felt more like reading a Wikipedia rendition as we listened to "Henri" relate his life as a short, crippled artist.
32. Imagine a true story of a Jewish father (whose own parents where orthodox) being related on the stage by his much-loved son & imagine this father was also a porn star in such films as "Debbie Does Dallas." As an audience, many questions immediately arise to be answered in "Debbie Does My Dad" of how this could have happened, what effect on the son/family, etc. Unfortunately, only the surface is scratched by the now-actor son in his staged memoir. A few insights, but much lacking.
33. Maybe it was the late hour, the dinner/wine just consumed, or the overly warm venue; but we failed to see the widespread fascination & popularity of "Bouncers," John Godber's very popular play that has had years of running in the UK. Set in the nightclub "Mr.Cinders," the play gives us the insights & views of 4 bouncers who comment/reenact those who pass in & out of their doors. We found it interesting but boring.
OUCH! THESE WERE ACTUALLY REALLY BAD (0 or 1 out of 5 stars) -- [But hey, it is the Fringe; and we expect some out-liers.]
34. A campy version of 'Sweet Charity' (with the women now being gay men on the seedy streets of New York) should have been fun IF the actors could actually sing, dance & act. But the show already has taken on 'Rocky Horror' following, & the 200-300 mostly young folk there whooped & catcalled so much, the show was barely heard anyway. A real bomb and disappointment.
35. Give John Milcot's (Earl of Rochester in mid-17th century, Restoration England) incredibly bawdy poem "Sodom" to a group of young actors & the result could have been an updated, hilarious rendition of this spoof on the sexual lives of royal court life. Instead, this production was so over-the-top it appears to have been created over a night of too much booze & then presented with every sex toy and innuendo possible. Too bad it is SOOO bad.
36. A last-minute decision to stay and see the next show in a venue "Evil, the Musical" (a musical comedy about cartoon anti-heroes) turned out to be a bad one. A visit to the pub would have been the better choice. While the cast of 10 has fine voices and the play an admirable opening & closing number, everything in the middle of the play (book, lyrics, acting, premise) was bad, bad, bad. Better stick to shows I have researched ahead of time.
In addition to the above plays & musicals, we also saw 4 other shows -- all of which we really enjoyed and would give 4-5 stars each:
--> Sitting in the historical, 1620 Greyfriars Church with a packed audience, we thoroughly enjoyed the Edinburgh LGBT Chorus in its "Out & Proud" concert. The mixture of Scottish, medieval & modern numbers really worked. The London Gay Men's Chorus joined for 3 numbers but were out-shined in this particular concert by the home group.
-> Sexy & silly for a solid 2 hours, the Australian, boylesque line-up of "Briefs" presents its circus of talents in an audacious, totally fun show of skin & skill. Never that raunchy & always with tongue in cheek & a wink of the eye, the boys in drag and in jock straps/Speedos deliver a show to a packed, international audience of cheering admirers. The perfect end at 2:30 a.m. to a 6-show day.
--> I love the circus, and the Moscow State Circus is probably one of the world's best. The 2-hour, one-ring show is jaw dropping with its many aerial acts of feat, including the best tightrope walking I think I have ever seen. The clowns are a bit of a disappointment, but the overall effect is an edge-of-your seat production.
--> What better way to end our 8 days than at a raucous party with the "Blues Brothers Revival"? 20-something musicians, back-up singers & leads (all from USA) brought the large, sell-out crowd into the aisles to dance, jump & scream praise. It all went a bit over my head since somehow I did not follow the B Bro's past Sat. Night Live days. But, I did have fun listening & watching others' who knew every word & move.
This is the second time we have gone to the Edinburgh Fringe (the "grandmother" of all Fringes, begun in 1947); and we will definitely go back (hopefully) again and again. There is nothing I have ever experienced like being there (except maybe going to the Olympics, which has a similar feeling but for totally different kind of entertainment). Ed & I urge all theater-lovers to give Fringe Festivals a chance and to go at least once to the one in beautiful Edinburgh.
Happy Theater-Going to Everyone: