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 / 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 / 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 / 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 / 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.