Edinburgh Gang Show 2016

November 16, 2016 | By | 1 Reply More

★★★★☆  Ambitious

King’s Theatre: Tue 15 – Sat 19 Nov 2016
Review by Thom Dibdin

Ambitious yet satisfying, this year’s Gang Show – at the King’s to Saturday – refuses to resort to many of the habitual sure-fire crowd pleasers.

Instead, director Andy Johnston has gone to newer musicals for his material, integrated new comic sketch material with old numbers, and married songs from very different but thematically similar musicals to create new set pieces.

Children will Listen. Photo: Michael G Walker

Children will Listen. Photo: Michael G Walker

All of which helps make sure that the regular spots that open and close the show feel even more special and that the whole thing has the indelible Edinburgh Gang Show stamp.

Silver flashes across the black costumes of the opening number indicate that something a little different is on the cards. Although the spirited but not always coherent Schoolyard – a selection of numbers from School of Rock – are not the special event hoped for, with the singers somewhat tentative.

Things begin to hit their stride, however, with It’s Hard to Be The Bard which sets off as a standard Johnston-written sketch, set in the court of a very bored Mary Queen of Scots.

There’s crowd-pleasing banter about Hibs winning – and not winning – the Scottish Cup, coupled with ironic comments on the dynamic personality of Hearts’ manager Robbie Neilson. Someone called Nicola who is definitely not a political figure – this was made very clear, no politics is being engaged with – is obsessed with asking every question twice.

dilema

These comedy sketches provide something of a dilemma for Johnston, in that the political banter works best while the framework can seem a little contrived and takes time to set up. In recent years he could get his teeth into the political arena too, but recent events have given the bad side of politics such a rabid face that it is not suitable for the gentle ribbing that such comedy operates at.

It's Hard to be the Bard. Photo: Michael G Walker

It’s Hard to be the Bard. Photo: Michael G Walker

The cast succeed in getting the jokes across, even if they could pick up the pace a bit. But having Shakespeare on stage, as well as a soothsayer, is all the excuse Johnston needs to have the sketch break out into a couple of numbers from Something Rotten, the hit Broadway musical comedy about Bill Shakespeare

David Coventry gets into the tongue twisters of Its Hard to be the Bard, with the dancing troupe giving great stuff behind. In fact the dance troupe give a huge amount this year. The overall choreography level is high, thanks to dance director Louise Williamson, but the core groups excel.

It’s all woven well into the sketch and eventually Helen Hunter, as the Soothsayer, bursts into A Musical – the vision that she has of a future for theatre where characters will break into song for no reason at all. Which she, Coventry and the whole 108-strong company subsequently do. Great stuff.

This year being the centenary of the cubs allows for a fifty-strong cub troupe to take to the stage for some energetic breakdance moves in a mash-up of Justin Timberlake’s Can’t Stop the Feeling with One Direction’s History and Live While You’re Going.

centenary

If there should maybe have been a hundred on stage for symbolism’s sake, they all seem to give twice as much as is reasonable to the number, so more than adequately make up for it.

A Musical. Photo: Michael G Walker

A Musical. Photo: Michael G Walker

A sequence of songs drawn together by their references to motherhood gives a few of the younger soloists to shine. This year’s Gang is a fairly young, which does show in places, but there are some incredibly talented youngsters among them, with Jessica Lyall bringing something special to the sweet Mama.

The soloists in the subsequent Hairspray-derived sequence Can’t Stop The Beat continue to show that the talent exists, but also demonstrate the difficulties of performance in the King’s. Kayleigh Johnstone exemplifies it, demonstrating her considerable vocal chops as her voice soars brilliant and clear over the company in the first half closer, I Know Where You’ve Been, but has less confidence in the quiet sections.

The second half gets off to an interesting start with a sequence called Spooky Panto Nightmare, a classic take-off of the King’s panto, derived from Hotel Transylvania. Michael Cantle is unable to shake off the horror of being taken to the show when he was five – but the whole thing turns out to be another excuse to take off into big production land, with the supremely confident Lucy Cowie leading the company in I’m In Love with A Monster.

It’s tricky not to get too self-referential in Gang Show land, and Next!, a sequence of children auditioning, has many jokes about the various children’s theatre companies. But the extended but well-constructed reference to local performance academy, MGA, slides in under the general mayhem without detracting.

fitting tribute

Sean Hughes demonstrates that the numbers from School of Rock might be more memorable than the earlier sequence had suggested, with a well-delivered Give Up Your Dreams. Which leads nicely into a brave rendition of Electricity from Billy Elliot, by a sextet of singing and dancing lads, providing a fitting tribute – without being too obvious about it – to John Duncan, the show’s late MD.

Somewhere Only We Know. Photo: Ryan Buchanan

Somewhere Only We Know. Photo: Ryan Buchanan

From here on in, Johnstone has his company do what they do best with a sequence of superbly delivered song and dance numbers. Helen Hunter and Hannah Kistruck bring a subtlety to For Good from Wicked, while Andrew Knowles drives Children Will Listen, from Into the Woods.

The merging of the two numbers is a great idea, but not half as good as getting Alice Bailey to solo on Keane’s Somewhere Only We Know. She has the complete measure of the number and manages to deliver it without letting memories of the 2013 John Lewis advert get in the way.

Which is very much the tone of the whole show. The big numbers are there, and the cultural references too, but they are made to be subservient to the overall production.

Yes, before it gets to ride along on the crest of the wave – as it always will – there are moments which will get better as the cast get more confident over the week, but this is a best kind of turn in the road for the Edinburgh Gang Show – one which we didn’t even know we needed.

Running time 2 hours and 45 minutes with one interval
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ
Tuesday 15 to Saturday 19 November 2016.
Evenings: 7pm; Matinee, Sat: 2.15pm.
Tickets and details: http://www.edtheatres.com/gangshow

ENDS

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