How does theatre in lockdown measure up to theatre IRL?

I’ve been rehearsing a play in lockdown. Or rather, I’ve been organising and sitting in on rehearsals for a play I wrote. I wrote it a while ago and then I didn’t have enough time to put it on. But since I’ve not been filling my evenings with going to review plays, I thought, if not now, when? So #DoingWellPlay, a comedy about the effect of social media on a YouTube star’s mental health, has now enjoyed its first public rehearsed reading.

Except, it wasn’t very public at all, it was all a bit indoorsy; a bit zoom-y. The amazing actors from the Manchester Performing Arts group were totally brilliant, and the joy of hearing and seeing the words I’d written given new depth and meaning by such talent was undimmed by the fact I was watching it all on zoom. It was all easier in many ways – easier to record, easier to fit in rehearsals, easier to get the play’s central theme – that too much screen time is not great for us – across. Now, as we teeter on the brink of a second lockdown, I’ll be looking at ways of leaning into the digital environment, to make it a totally zoom-friendly, COVID-safe production.

But … it’s not really the same, it’s not as thrilling as the floodlights and the collective awe and the connective togetherness of an actual, live ephemeral performance, is it?

If it were, theatre would have died out as soon as television were invented.

Lockdown has brought with it a wonderful outpouring of creativity and connection and access. I loved the chance to have Rosamund Pike and Paapa Essiedu fill my laptop screen with endless close-ups in the political, stirring My White Best Friend (And Other Letters Left Unsaid) at The Royal Court and watch the enterprising range of films made as part of HOMEmakers commission. all projects made at home for viewers at home. But the best theatre I’ve watched on screen has not really been plays at all – its the stuff that’s found another way, that’s worked with the restrictions, not against them, and come up with plyful, multimedia art.

This period has been hard, economically, mentally, for everyone involved in live performance, but it has also been a great reminder that creativity can flow from constraint and great work is often made under pressure, because it gives people something to rally against.

A couple of weeks ago I went to see the Virtual Collaborators Festival, a hybrid digital and live festival created during lockdown but then performed in real life in a churchyard in Leyton. There were over 100 different theatrical projects created. The founder, Danusia Samal, paired up writers with actors, so everyone who wanted to keep creating was able to do so and it attracted the likes of Naomi Ackie, Clare Perkins , Bayo Gbadamosi and Sarah Kosar.

First of all, just being at a live theatre festival, in open-air with people and laughter and strangers felt utterly thrilling. You could have shown me Punch and Judy and I’d be delighted. But, better than that, there was touching beauty in the form of Sway, developed as a radio play but performed here with delicate puppets by Angelina Chudi, telling an environmental and feminist parable about mermaids.

Another, with a feminist motif was Brick, created by Jessica Bickel-Barlow and Olivia Munk from Part of the Main. It explores the stifling confinement of those early lockdown weeks through the lens of a 14th century woman who voluntarily puts herself in solitary confinement to contemplate God. Her good friend is imprisoned next door and they debate her choices. First performed online with two faces talking to each other through an imagined crack in the wall, the staging didn’t change too much in real life – it worked just as well in both formats. Maybe, with our Government’s constantly changing Covid rules, this is something we’ll see more of.

There was something special about the collegiate nature of it all that I haven’t seen since going to drama club aged 16. It was as though the virus had blown away any presumption of status and plonked everyone in the industry in the same egalitarian boat – and everyone realised the only way to survive was to paddle together.

Now that theatres are reopening, I hope that feeling isn’t forgotten; it makes for very exciting work.

The Dog Walker, Jermyn Street Theatre review: ‘

The Dog Walker - Paul Minx - Jermyn Street Theatre - 12th February 2020 Director - Harry Burton, Designer - Isabella Van Braeckel, Sound Designer - Fergus O’Hare, Lighting Designer - Tom Turner, Keri - Victoria Yeates, Doakes - Andrew Dennis
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

What the last few years as a country – and indeed the last few weeks – have taught us is that we live in a world that is disconnected. We live in isolated bubbles, blaming other people in other isolated bubbles for anything wrong in our lives. Isolation and loneliness are the costs we pay for convenience culture, our mental health is impacted by disconnection. What if by some miracle, two people from very different bubbles were able to pierce their respective albumens and start talking? How better to achieve that than through a mutual liking of dogs?

This is where The Dog Walker sets off. 

It brings together white, middle-class New Yorker Keri and Jamaican poet, Janitor and dog walker Herbert Winston Doakes. Neither of them is as straightforward as they initially seem. God-fearing Doakes (Andrew Dennis) professes to be 17 years sober and Keri claims she doesn’t need any friends apart from her beloved Pekinese dog and emphasises the point by getting on all fours and barking at Doakes.

Mercurial and volatile Keri is one of the most fascinating characters to emerge from the stage in recent years. She lives within the confines of her tawdry 5th-floor apartment on West 49th Street, which designer Isabella Van Braeckel has managed to make look cramped but somehow more spacious than the actual confines of the tiny Jermyn Street stage, by giving the impression the alcove to the theatre toilets leads to Keri’s kitchen and creating a window with a ladder outside, where Keri spends much time sitting and gazing out, at the edge of her set, searching for a ghost of a girl that haunts her. The floor is a depository for takeaway bags and the shelves house photos of past lovers and dead pets. Empty bottles of booze litter every surface. It’s a carefully crafted insight into its occupant’s mind. Keri is clearly not well. But what is the cause? She claims to have all the answers in her self-published self-help E-books whose target readership are ‘bottom-feeders’.

Playwright Paul Minx’s writing teeters on the edge of melodrama, with the characters veering from anger to affection and back in a matter of seconds. There are more ups and downs than that Eastenders episode last week about Linda’s foot. It’s testament to the strength of the actors that they are able to seem like convincing, whole characters, especially Keri, whose mood can turn on a pin. Yeates plays her as both vulnerable and bitter. In one particularly cruel scene, she lets Doakes intimately stroke her face and then humiliates him with terrified relish. Dennis’ unabashedly ashamed reaction is painful to watch, his pride is well and truly pierced. 

Harry Burton, the director, is known for directing Pinter and his input gives rise to the comedy that occurs when the two characters clash but, perhaps in an effort to make their larger-than-life personas appear believable, opportunities for heightened drama and emphasis are ignored in favour of a more naturalistic delivery. When Keri reveals the wellspring of her agony, it is rushed past and could have been a bigger moment, likewise when Doakes comes clean about the lies he’s told Keri to protect his own sense of superiority, it’s delivered skittishly and there’s barely a beat before the dialogue hurtles on to another argument. 

There’s much to unpick in this richly layered production, with heavy themes of grief, depression, and domestic abuse mixed in with surreal humour. It’s a lot – and if I could change one thing, it would be to let the text breathe a little rather than getting the performers to hurtle on past crucial moments. 

The Dog Walker is at Jermyn Street Theatre, 12 February to 7 March.

On Bear Ridge, Royal Court, Jerwood Downstairs: ‘Masterful production on language, memory and selfhood’

On Bear Ridge by the NTW and Royal Court Theatre Photo by Mark Douet
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

The curtain opens to show Rhys Ifans as John Daniel, dressed in butcher’s apron and body warmer, in slumber on the floorboards of a decrepit building, spitting out half-remembered staccato syllables of a strange language, smiling and wild. The language, referred to simply as The Old Language, is dying out, along with the community that spoke them – and John Daniel’s memories are fading with them.

This dreamlike new play co-produced by the National Theatre Wales and the Royal Court, London, by playwright and TV producer Ed Thomas, was first staged at the Sherman Theatre in Wales. It explores themes of loss of community, identity and language and would make a rather a nice companion piece to the current production of Translations at the National.

We are not in Friel’s Ireland of 1833 however but at a more recent time in some high, remote area in Wales. The four walls of the butcher’s shop set by designer Cal Dyfan slowly lift away to reveal more of the high misty mountain terrain, the sound of planes flying ominously overhead. A new asphalt road has created an easy path to the city, which all but steadfast John Daniel and Noni his partner have followed, leaving their once-busy butcher’s shop to rack and ruin.

Thomas’s script pulls together ideas about existence and belonging, memory. loss and selfhood in a fresh new way, with characters, vanishing set and haunting sound by Mike Beer, which weaves choral Welsh song with old gramophone music to insinuate that nothing is real here – not even the characters themselves.

Thomas and Vicky Featherstone have co-directed this piece with a perfect sense of when to flip between humour and poignancy, sometimes pulling at multiple threads at once, to the point where we don’t know whether laughing is disrespectful or kind. They never let the story fizzle out, but keep amping up the tension again and again.

Ifans is masterful as John Daniel, never missing an opportunity for comedy, he can make just one word ripe and bursting with meaning and he carries the pace along with grandiose, roaring speeches arms outstretched, with wheedling, searching fingers that poke and point through his fingerless gloves.

Rakie Ayola as Noni offers self-contained stillness in counterpoint to his ranting speeches. When a conflicted captain (Jason Hughes) comes to their home through the snowstorm her frosty speech to him is all the more chilling for her minimal gestures and fierce expression.

At a time when the Welsh language is being eroded and, more globally, when sounding or looking different from the norm is perceived as a threat, this production couldn’t be more timely or resonant.

I’d rather go blind, Omnibus Theatre review: ‘Motherhood and the criminal justice system’

I'd rather Go Blind by Somalia Seaton
3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Futures Theatre is a small company that’s been quietly whirring away since 1992, under the auspices of founder and AD Caroline Bryant, producing incisive, important stories, made with women and about marginalised women.

I’d Rather Go Blind playwright Somalia Seaton has written a compassionate narrative about a mother, Michelle and her daughter Ruby. They play, dance, sing, like every mother and daughter, except they are not like every mother and daughter; Michelle gave Ruby up for adoption. The narrative doesn’t focus on why and how that adoption occurred, instead focusing on Michelle’s mental torture at the loss of Ruby. 

Toyin Ayedun-Alase plays Michelle with expressive physicality, one moment she is robust; dancing joyfully, arms wide, buttocks wiggling merrily and at other moment shrunk to half her former size, a small lethargic lump, sheltering from the world under her duvet covers. Her ability to cope with the world is impaired. Somalia Seston’s text can be skillfully precise, with Michelle rapping out her hatred of the long-nailed neighbour who rummages around the bins and her dismissive feelings about Notting Hill carnival but Michelle’s background is roughly sketched, details are scarce – perhaps to maintain the audience’s non-judgemental sympathy – though a more interesting if difficult choice might have been to see all of Michelle, warts and all. A caseworker visits and suggests, she is doing very well after a spell we assume was spent in prion, learning new skills and getting a new job has been a struggle. 

Ruby, a mercurial sprite played by Leona Allen, appears at birth, fully formed, she is 13, then 15 and as her 18th birthday approaches she becomes erratic and strange, yearning to break out of the confines of Michelle’s flat and also from Michelle’s imagination; this is not the real Ruby but Michelle’s imagined version of Ruby.

Scenes melt between naturalistic exchanges with empathetic caseworker Chrissy, played with subtle humour by Anna-Maria Everett to surreal and haunting wordplay between Michelle and her daughter. Maybe it’s just me, but it took me until about the midpoint of the show to realise Ruby was a figment of Michelle’s mind, which was probably a deliberate choice by director Caroline Bryant to create a sense of unsettling mystery – it worked but I would have liked to have had that clarity at a slightly earlier point and had more of the back-story about Michelle’s motivations for giving Ruby up. 

This is an early, short run of the show and it deserves a transfer to let it breathe and speak to a wider audience. 

Gastronomic, Shoreditch Town Hall review: ‘Brilliant take on asylum seeker narrative’

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Theatre that also includes food often falls short on both fronts. It’s logistically very difficult to serve mass catering with courses arriving at tightly-timed intervals, add movement and acting to the mix and it’s nearly impossible. 

So Curious Directive have made a sensible choice for this show – audience seated, food on trays, delivered on a smooth track so servers don’t have to move from table to table and cooking done by young trainee chefs with a  menu devised by Norwich restaurants Benedicts, Shiki, The Assembly House, Namaste Village and Bread Source.

The show itself is a beautiful meditation on the links between food, tradition and place interwoven with a story about a refugee, smuggled aboard an airplane. The conceit is we are all travelling first class on a flight, the head chef addresses us directly – announcing each incoming dish with delicate tales that speak to both the characters’ stories and more universal narratives. A fish and chip dish is a walk on a British seaside pier, but also an ice-cream, dropped by the chef in a moment of sudden shock – the dish is a monstrous hybrid of the two – an ice cream cone with an ice-cream textured fish puree. Oof.

Nora is played with wide-eyed wonder by Georgina Strawson, she is a chef passionate about the meeting of science and art that is food gastronomy and its hard not to succumb to her romanticised descriptions of the food we eat. She works on a tiny two-metre square kitchen at the centre of the space ‘on board’ our Airbus A380 flight. She is joined by Luca, (Craig Hamilton) a stowaway she met in Beirut and her sous chef and former lover Agat (Ani Nelson). Camera positioned in the on-board kitchen show close-up views of dishes as they are prepped and headphones offer crisp sound quality. There are also ipads at regular intervals on our tables, but the show makes scarce use of them.

This dish is called ‘The End of Brighton Pier’

The story is rather brilliant, it distills the story of a refugee in an engaging and novel way, while subtly drawing attention to the priviledge and separateness of us, the audience, from the journeys of the characters they portray.

Still, don’t go for the food. It’s tiny and somewhat flaccid. Vegetable crisps are chewy, a coley fish sauce is salty and claggy. A prosecco and grapefruit foam is delightful and the final dish, a cherry Bakewell is a tasty though meagre portion. The rest is forgettable. For five-course tasting menu standards, this is very bad but by immersive theatre standards, it’s pretty good.

curiousdirective.com/gastronomic-2019

Monday 23 September – Saturday 12 October

Time

7pm, 7.30pm & 9pm

Tickets

£27.50 – £35 (includes a seven-course tasting menu)

Running time

70 mins

World’s End, King’s Head Review: ‘A beautiful love story World’s End. Set to a backdrop of Legend of Zelda and the war in Kosovo’

World's End: an LGBT love story Photo: Bettina Adela
3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Closing the popular queer season at the King’s Head theatre in Islington is LGBT love story set to a backdrop of Legend of Zelda and the war in Kosovo, this debut play from actor James Corley skillfully balances world politics alongside domestic drama as the lives of four people living on a council estate become increasingly enmeshed.

Set in 1998-99, at the height of the Kosovan conflict, a well-to-do mother, Viv and her highly-strung 19-year-old son Ben move into the World’s End estate in Chelsea. Next door, they meet Besnik and his father Ylli, who fled Kosovo when Besnik was very young.

Harry Mackrill, who is currently Associate on David Hare’s adaptation of Peer Gynt at the National Theatre, directs the gay love story at the heart of the play with tenderness but the scenes exploring cultural tensions between the two parents feel underpowered.

What is lovely about this story is that this is not the coming-of-age, coming out play you’ve seen a thousand times before; both the young men are certain in their sexuality, even if they are uncertain about everything else in their world.

Tom Milligan plays anxious teen Ben with hyperactive nervousness, which made me wonder at first if he was meant to be an autistic character – new situations scared him, he stuttered and he was neurotic about the slightest change. This was revealed to be a strong reaction against an itinerant childhood where he wasn’t allowed to set down roots, but the actor’s overemphasis of this nervous trait from the start left him little wriggle room as tension mounted later on.

Conversely, Nikolaos Brahimllari’s performance of Ylli, feels underwhelming. His country is being destroyed and he feels compelled to go and fight for it, even though it means certain death, yet when he expresses this to Viv and his son, it lacks the passion and anguish one might expect.

All of the action is set on a tiny triangle of stage which economically represents both flats and the hallway between them. Joined with subtle lighting by Jai Morjaria, Rachel Stone’s set comprises two wooden doors with gold numbers 11 and 13 indicate how crammed together the two residences are and cardboard moving boxes serve to indicate the transience of Ben and Viv’s life.

Ylli and his son Besnik do not see eye-to-eye Photo: Bettina Adela

It is lovely to see a Kosovan actor playing a Kosovan role in Mirlind Bega, who grew up in Wakefield where he first discovered acting aged 9. His Besnik’s easy-going charm and resilience contrasts well with Ben’s unease.

The romance between the young men is a slow burner, built around a friendship and mutual love of video games, specifically Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Their love is at the burning heart of the play and are wonderful to watch but in other moments the staging feels a little stilted and awkward. Particularly between Ylli and Besnik, where Ylli is often stood rigidly, not reacting as his father berates him for being gay.

Current political tensions over immigrants are played out in Ylli’s living room between Ylli and Ben’s mother Viv, played beautifully with upper-middle-class condescension by Patricia Potter and with some of the best lines in the play. Upon discovering how cheap the rent is on Ylli’s two-bed council flat, Viv whispers to Ben: ‘It’s not fair.’ ‘

Mum, they’ve lost everything’ says Ben,

‘Well so have we!’ says Viv.

It concisely hits to the heart of much of the nation’s fears around refugees and immigrants and it’s done with humour and a light touch – this isn’t a polemic – in fact it feels very firmly rooted in the period of 1998-99.

The two boys come out as the more sympathetic characters, righting the wrongs their parents have made and their romance is a constant in a world of chaos. It’s a beautiful conclusion to the King’s Head’s successful season.

Until 21 September kingsheadtheatre/website

EDINBURGH EDITION – Day five (24 August)

The Claim

The Claim, Summerhall – Roundabout

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

As part of the British Council Showcase 2019, Tim Cowbury has written a piece that is deliberately fraught with frustration for the audience as the claimant’s story is ignored, manipulated and suppressed by the other characters.

Serge (affable Ery Nzaramba) is here because… Why? He wants to tell his story because he doesn’t want to be deported – but will the interpreter and case worker listen? Will they heck. They are more concerned with chatting about their upcoming holiday than letting Serge tell his story – and when they do start listening, their own prejudices get in the way of the truth.

When Serge manages to get a word in, it is misinterpreted by the interpreter, and then the answer is warped even further by the case worker.

Ask him where he lives, asks the case worker.

‘where do you live?’ says the interpreter.

‘Streatham.’

‘No, before?’

‘Were there elephants there?’

‘In Streatham?’

According to the UK government, there were 29,380 asylum applications in 2018. Sixty-seven per cent of which were refused asylum.

Asylum decisions in the UK take place behind closed doors, and over the last couple of decades, asserts the show, they have become increasingly kafkaesque. Through the journey of one claim, Cowbury shines a light on the bureaucratic, misleading, pressurised and unfair ways that claimants are asked to give testimony.

As Serge’s story is twisted beyond all recognition he is painted into a perpetrator and criminal when he is in fact a victim. Directed by Mark Maughan, it’s incredibly difficult and frustrating to watch as he is ignored, cajoled and accused, as he tries repeatedly to get the truth across.

This work has wider ramifications about what the UK is and how it wants to be seen in the modern world and this performance paints a picture of a land full of petty prejudices and xenophobia.

Not an easy viewing experience, but a necessary one.

Your sexts are shit, Summerhall

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

It’s 11.30 in the morning and we are listening to performer Rachel Mars reading a letter sent from James Joyce to his lover Nora Barnacle in 1909:

“You had an arse full of farts that night, darling, and I fucked them out of you, big fat  fellows, long windy ones, quick little merry cracks and a lot of tiny little naughty farties, ending in a long gush from your hole.”

It’s surprisingly explicit and instantly banishes any preconceptions that talking dirty is a modern preoccupation. James Joyce, or ‘Jim’ as he signed off those letters, was very dirty indeed. He loved to do it ‘arseways’ and wrote eloquently and at length on the subject.

Mars feels we have lost the fine art of writing about our sexual desires, as demonstrated by the series of modern lacklustre sexts displayed on the screen behind her.

Texts like ‘I wanna get underneath the table and make it hard for you to talk’ are contrasted with letters like this from Frida Kahlo to her husband Diego Rivera:

“Everything was surrounded by the green miracle of the landscape of your body. Upon your form, the lashes of the flowers responded to my touch, the murmur of streams. There was all manner of fruits in the juice of your lips, the blood of the pomegranate, the horizon of the mammee and the purified pineapple.”

Letters from Eleanor Roosevelt to her lesbian lover, Charles Bukowski to his girlfriend Linda King, Proust to his grandfather begging for money to purchase a prostitute – these letters are lush and bitter and carnal and profane.

We are living in an age of instant, thoughtless charmless communication. We’ve swapped illicit love notes for dick pics. But have our emotions dulled as much as the missives we thoughtlessly shoot to our partners on tiny screens?

Mars’s presentation is simple and not particularly theatrical; letters are read out, sexts are displayed, repeat. But a more subtle message is being conveyed. As Mars shares mundane poetry from her ex-lovers as well as her own, far better descriptions of her sexuality and the sexual identity she wants to present, the show presents an image of how modern love has changed from that of just a century ago; the picture of sexuality in the modern age is one of instant gratification, but also of quiet, comfortable cohabitation. We don’t need to write letters to cross the oceans separating us when we have Skype. And maybe that text saying don’t forget to buy milk is just another coded, pleading message, asking someone to remember your needs.

Who Cares, Summerhall

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Nicole (Lizzie Mounter) started caring for her mum when she was only four. Jade (Jessica Temple) has always cared for her brother, who has learning difficulties and uses sign language but one day she becomes the carer for her dad too after he is consigned to a wheelchair. Connor (Luke Grant) cares for his mum, she struggles to get out of bed sometimes after her family died all within a few months of each other and then Connor’s dad left him to help her on his own.

Theatre makers LUNG are Associate Artists at The Lowry, making work for communities in and around Manchester. Director and writer Matt Woodhead took two years of interviews with young carers living in Salford to form this profound work highlighting the hidden young carers aged 18 and under who are propping up the NHS by working for free to care for a parent or sibling.

One in 12 young people care for someone. They save the country £132 billion a year in the unpaid caring they do. As this work highlights, they get little or no support and no relief from this work.

The authenticity of the real-life interviews is preserved by the three actors who bear out the optimism and resilience of their real-life counterparts.

As the stories of the three carers interweave and unfold, the characters remind us that this could happen to any of us – all it takes is a parent to turn left instead of right crossing the street.

The effect of benefits cuts is particularly hard to listen to and verbatim interviews with child support services show how their funding has been stripped down to virtually nothing at all. the most shocking aspect of the show is that many of these kids are hidden – they are not known by the authorities and so no help can be put in place to assist them.

While the stories are grim – and the prospects for these young people’s futures are poorer than their non-carer counterparts (they will attain poorer grades at GCSE and their households will earn less) their is great hope and courage that bouys them up – moments of happiness and joy are snatched and cherished, whether it be a parent learning to speak again after a stroke, or a great song they love played out a full volume on their headphones, these children have been forced to have almost more responsibility than they can bear, but they’ve also leant to grasp at joy, and remain unbeaten by their circumstances.

https://whocarestour.org.uk/who-cares-campaign

EDINBURGH EDITION – Day four (23 August)

Love (Watching Madness), Pleasance Courtyard

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

There are quite a few shows about maternal relationships at the Fringe this year, many of them about how our mothers f**k us up. None I’ve seen is told with as much compassion as Isabelle Kabban’s story about living with a mother with bipolar.

There’s almost so much love and compassion here that there’s little room left for grit as Kabban recounts tales of her mum throwing trifle at her friend when she was fourteen and conversations when her mum feels judged by her as a late teen, while she spoons day-old spaghetti into her mouth, having not washed for three days.

It’s a simple, tenderly told show where Kabban’s distress is expressed through arm-wringing gestures set to heavy metal music and struggles through scenes in which her mother becomes increasingly distant and impassive. (Kabban pays her mother as being nearly emotionless, with a blank expressionless face).

She falls back on the trope of talking to a therapist to reveal the trauma that her mother caused and frustration about not being able to ‘fix’ her. But while the show doesn’t seem particularly original, Kabban’s performance is sincere and heartfelt and she is magnetically watchable.

Do Our Best, Underbelly Cowgate

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Supremely confident Sephy can deal with anything, including the challenges of being in the girl guides, bullying and badge-winning. She’s attempting to win her performers and entertainers badge for the fourth time running, aged 30 – and we are treated to a rather long preamble about how devastatingly wonderful this performance will be before we discover the heartache behind her egotistical facade.

Remy Beasley writes and performs this clever show in which the sanctuary of the girl guides is a shelter from the desolation Sephy feels at the loss of her mother. The writing only gets better as the play progresses and Sephy’s supreme egotism ebbs away to reveal a lost girl looking for a hug in all the wrong places.

Remy Beasley is a mischievous performer, who seems to love making her audience squirm. She insults and manipulates key audience members with a knowing twinkle in her eye as she weaves a story about the keenly felt embarrassments of childhood. It’s funny and painful and beautiful and disastrous – and well worth an hour of your time.

EDINBURGH EDITION – Day Two (22 August)

Birth – Pleasance Courtyard

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

A beautiful contemporary dance piece about miscarriage which with deft simplicity spans three generations of family and meditates on the stories not shared between families and lives unlived but still full imagined by those suffering from the loss of them.

Scene changes are denoted by a large off-white cloth, swept over the characters, who in seconds beneath the fabric, morph and age seamlessly. A toddling boy grows to adulthood and fathers his own child before our eyes. A girl meets a man, falls in love and gives birth with deceptively simple gestures – there is virtually no dialogue. The story becomes circular as parents raise children who raise children who become their parents, which might be intentional or not, but it made me think about reincarnation, maybe there was a subtle nod to the idea of every human feeling loss and pain and every birth being the result of generations of care and survival. It takes A village to raise a child and a village to mourn one.

Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein – Underbelly – McEwan Hall

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

A moving, well-polished, inventive production using projection screens, puppets, live music and mime to elegantly tell a story about Frankenstein’s monster and author Mary Shelley’s inspiration behind her gothic masterpiece.

Overhead projectors have never been this exciting before – they are about five of them in a row, each manned by a performer, and switched with balletic choreography from one to the next with moving slides which appear on a projection screen like live animation. Each image is wrought with precision – from Mary Shelley’s silhouetted forelock to the monster’s ‘watery eye’. These seamlessly switch to and from the actors so a silhouette made of paper on the overhead projector blends into scenes with actors silhouetted behind a screen.

Part of the fascination for the viewer is having all the moving parts laid out on the stage – you can see the performers creating misty morning landscapes by flickering their hands above the OHPs you can watch the flautist and the drums being played – you can see the actors floating intricately cut cardboard props behind the screen – yet none of this detracts from the central story.

Best of all, the tenderly told story of a human-like creature born into a world he doesn’t understand and which views him as monstrous is leant fresh pathos by an adorable malformed puppet whose attempts to make a basic human connection are thwarted at every turn.

The production is so slick and utterly unique, it’s a real marvel to behold.

America is Hard to See, Underbelly Cowgate

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Set within the sugar cane fields of rural Florida, in the town of Miracle village, three miles east of Pahokee is a small community. The show begins with the actors, portraying the real-life inhabitants asking why anyone is interested in their small little town, with its cute little chapel and its God-fearing country folk (population 200)?

Theatre makers Life Jacket Theatre were interested because Florida’s enforcement laws have resulted in Miracle Village becoming almost entirely populated by sex offenders. The show interviews the ones whose victims were minors; children.

This community slowly became accepted by a local pastor, Patti, from Pahokee, who encouraged the men to join the choir. Turns out they sing like angels.

There are verbatim transcripts with characters explaining how Chad, the school teacher felt a deep connection with his 15-year-old pupil, how Chris was aghast to find his girlfriend was under-age.

A response from Chad’s victim, who it appears contacted the theatre company – is minimised to just one line: ‘He ruined my life’, and then we see Chad, disarmingly awkward, making sarcastic jokes about going to a Christian pray the gay away camp and playing piano in the Pajokee church choir.

Redemption through prayer and church song is a key theme. Chris and his new girlfriend, who is the progressive pastor’s daughter have a love song constucted around the real-life characters interviews, about young love and the frustrations when Chris breaks his parole agreement and returns to jail.

The quality of music and singing is very good – the lyrics are so-so – there are constructed from fragments of what real people have said. One is about a tour around a local sugarcane plant, which the performers try their best to infuse with fury but its still a tour around a sugar cane plant set to music. I’m not sure why this made the cut.

It feels like the agenda of the theatre group was to show the human-ness, the guilt, the grief, the mental torture that some of those in this community go through. With only court transcripts to present an alternative view of what really went on.

I find myself frequently asking why this subject. Why give a voice to a community of paedophiles? it makes for interesting theatre, but as a journalist I have to question the ethics of focusing a piece of work on the criminals and leaving their victims in the shadows.

EDINBURGH EDITION – Day one (21 August)

I am very late to the Fringe this year. I usually go early early, when the 2for1s are still going strong and everyone’s swapping tips and racing to discover the show of the season. Coming later in the month is a much more sedate experience. Shows have been sifted and settled by critics, awards given out; every show knows its place in the critical pecking order and there’s no pressure that you might make or break a play’s chances of success by giving it its first review. There’s an air of calm acceptance muddled with bouts of end-of-Fringe hysteria. It’s lovely. I’m really enjoying the process of seeing things I already know will be good before I see them – and mining for any last tidbits that have so far gone unnoticed by reviewers.

There are a few reviewers, I’ve noticed, not having such a pleasant time as me. I was sat next to one guy today who is reviewing ten shows a day for his publication, all unpaid and all of which have to be turned around within 24 hours. It’s common to see reviewers frazzled, pale and broken at the Fringe, especially this late in the game. I know the practice of writing fast to tight deadlines hones your skills, but who really benefits from a hastily written review spunked out by a mind on no sleep? I’m not sure.

Anyway, I digress. Here are the treats I saw today, in the order that I saw them.

Bobby & Amy, Pleasance Courtyard, 12.45pm

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

This reminded me a bit of the wonderful Blackthorn by Charley Miles, which was a hit at Edinburgh last year, about two people in love, growing up and apart as the North Yorkshire town where they were born shifts over time.

Likewise, Bobby and Amy find each other as school kids, and their rural town is also threatened by the development of housing and destruction of the farmland where they like to play.

Bobby is neurologically atypical – a trope that seems to be increasingly popular ever since The Curious Incident proved that Autistic characters could be great vehicles for pathos and humour on the stage.

There’s also that rhythmic, poetic form of writing employed in this case by playwright Emily Jenkins that seems to have become a genre in itself. Characters are described in three adjectives, landscapes the same, sentences are spat out without transition words. The sun doesn’t shine, it ‘shoots’, a man who works in Bobby and Amy’s local chip shop has ‘skin like grease and breadcrumbs’. Words which seem to be chosen more for the sounds they make than the sense. Is there a school that teaches this style somewhere? I’ve heard it so many times on stage it has begun to feel like a formula. But there’s grace and charm to those words too and a moving story told with a light touch.

So the show feels like a pick’n’mix of lots of ideas that have been floating around in different forms, but it combines them in a way which is new and quite special.

Bobby (Will Howard) and Amy (Kimberley Jarvis) are both outcasts at school, they meet in the farmland around their town and spend many days playing in a folly on the local farmer’s land but when the farm’s cows are threatened by Foot and Mouth, the entire community is shaken and Bobby and Amy must make a stand.

The most impressive aspect of this show is how the actors shift through myriad characters, playing every member of the community from shopkeeps to farmers, giggling schoolgirls and government officials. But despite a town’s worth of people to juggle, the central characters are well-drawn portraits that capture the joys and heartache of childhood.

Like Animals – Summerhall, 2.15pm

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

This sweet, unusual show, performed and devised by real-life couple Kim Donohoe and Pete Lannon is about their worries that their love may fizzle out and also about two bizarre attempts in the Sixties and Seventies made by humans to get animals to speak.

In the Sixties, there was a NASA-funded experiment to communicate with dolphins. Margaret Lovatt lived with the dolphin Peter, all day and all night, trying to get him to replicate what she was saying. She also relived his sexual urges… manually. Kim and Pete re-enact the lessons Pete received (thankfully omitting the manual relief part) in a children’s paddling pool while wearing wet suits.

The other experiment was Alex the parrot, who learned from his teacher Dr. Irene Pepperberg, to discern the material an object was made of, its colour and shape.

While Alex was a great success story, Pete never really mastered speech. it’s difficult to talk through a blow-hole.

What did Alex really understand about the words and concepts he was sharing? what did Peter understand about this human who was sexually intimate with him?

What do humans understand, or misunderstand when we speak to each other?

in between reassuring glances and quick cuddles, Kim and Pete attempt to draw a link between the gulf of understanding between animal and human and between human and human.

“Tell me you love me” says Kim, “Say it better”.

This comparison isn’t very clearly drawn and the dialogue feels overly repetitious and bit laboured. They keep asking each other “Shall we do the next bit?” which feels like rather lazy fourth-wall breaking and there is a long segment where they both pretend to be birds and I can’t work out why.

Nevertheless, its a very sweet and funny hour-long exploration of the gulfs of misunderstanding, even between the closest of couples and the cleverest of animals.

E8, Pleasance Dome

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Set in a Pupil Referral Unit in Hackney, this play spans an hour in the lives of two teachers and two students staying behind at the end of yet another difficult day. The pupils’ personal circumstances are gradually revealed to show the challenges they face not only in their academic but also their personal lives.

There’s an outstanding performance by Alice Vilanculo as Bailey, an angry, terrified teen who, despite some promising mock exams, sees no future for herself.

The writing by Marika Mckennell is whip-smart with absolutely spot-on dialogue, contrasting the street slang of the pupils with the middle-class, softly spoken headteacher.

Once or twice, the piece began to veer into tell-not-show territory, with the headteacher played by Tina Chiang, offering up a polemic on the difficulties of a school system trying to deal with issues of historical and structural racism, classism and sexism, all while half the students have Asbos.

But there’s plenty of tense exposition too, as we learn about Biley’s struggles at home and Ryan (Harry McMullen)’s frustrating (yet highly credible) ineloquence reveals a story of cruel suffering.

The performances were all naturalistic and believable, but a strong ring of truth also surrounded the stories of these pupils who society has chosen to condemn before their lives have barely begun.

FREE FRINGE PICK – Amy Howerska: Serious Face, Three Sisters

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Amy Howerska doesn’t believe comedy should be about making a serious point, she just wants comedy to be about making people laugh. She thinks stand-ups have got a bit too serious of late – and she’s here to keep things light.

She does exactly that in her free fringe show. Material ranges from her marriage, her family, her husband’s family, her engagement ring and her recent move to San Francisco for her husband’s job. That might sound like there isn’t much to work with there, but it turns out her family is bonkers and gave her enough material to fill a curtain shop.

There’s a bit of more generalised observational comedy about how American’s are obsessed with pharmaceuticals and difficult to befriend, delivered with Miranda Hart style mock-shock – and some hot takes on the dynamics of female friendships – but a lot of it is just about superficialities her own life. And her life is funny. She’s married a man with three sexy brothers who she openly lusts after at family gatherings, her sister is barmy and once took her to Russia to do shots of tequila off a naked woman. Her mother is so awful that in a therapy session the therapist openly sided with Amy and told her she was right to disown her. It’s all funny stuff, but it lacks a cohesive thread. There are no clever interlinking moments, no attempts to either generalise to make the audience feel part of her story or to truly be vulnerable enough and personal enough to create a really compelling yarn.

Amy freely admits that she doesn’t have a schtick or a USP, that’s the ostensible subject of this show and that’s more than fine for an entertaining free fringe show. But if she wants to take her work to wider audiences, she’ll need more than a few disconnected stories about her new life in the States.