EdFringe Day 5 – Highs and lows…

Aug 17 2012 | By More

Burns, the Black Dog, Jaffa Cakes, heartless Chekhov, the Edinburgh-Leith divide and a gay musical

A scene from Communicado's Tam O'Shanter at the Assembly Hall, Edinburgh Fringe 2012. Photo credit: Douglas Robertson

A scene from Communicado’s Tam O’Shanter at the Edinburgh Fringe 2012. Photo credit: Douglas Robertson

By Thom Dibdin

Assembly or Assembly Rooms? Who knows how the argument is going to fall out between the Stand’s Tommy Sheppard and Assembly’s William Burdett-Coutts – especially now that the latter has a year-round home in the city.

No matter for the moment: the one Assembly which no one is arguing over is the Assembly Hall on the Mound. It’s where the Church of Scotland assembles and was where Guthrie created his first ever Thrust Stage, for Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaites.

Now it is being used by Assembly and amongst the many things they have here (including the excruciating High Kick) is a 90 minute version of Tam O’Shanter.

It is a stoater. Easily a must-see show, and the perfect production to stage in this space, with all the history it contains.

Gerry Mulgrew and his Communicado theatre company have taken Burns’ great narrative poem and pumped it up with a power of other Burns material. It is a fantastic, inventive telling, making great use of a huge ensemble and pouring music into its every pore.

In its staging it makes use of everything from puppetry to projections to historic tableaux and modern comedy doggerel. There is a big historical  section – set in the pub naturally – which both works stupendously well but also helps frame the actual story of Tam and his mare Meg, their trip home after the pub has closed and their close shave with the Devil.

From this rollicking, riotous piece of Scottish fantasy in one of the Fringe’s biggest halls, it is along to the Pleasance and the tiny sauna known as Pleasance Below for a play called Mon Droit.

A gentle descent through a violent world
MIke McShane and Suki Webster in McShane's Mon Droit.

MIke McShane and Suki Webster in McShane’s Mon Droit.

Part of the fun of the fringe is going to see  a show without knowing at all what is going to happen in front of you for the next hour. So it was something of a pleasant shock to realise that the large, jovial fellow on the stage was none other than the great Mike McShane. He isn’t always spot on, but he has done some great stuff, particularly when working with John Clancy.

Now, in Mon Droit he has written a tight little two hander, which he performs with Suki Webster. It is based on the true story of Robert James Moore, an American who became so obsessed with the Queen and the Royal Family that he set up home on an island in St James’ Park within sight of Buckingham Palace and was only discovered when his remains were uncovered years after his death.

Mike McShane portrays Moore with great sensitivity, drawing out the tribulations of a man going through the end of a breakdown. A breakdown he has been waiting for all his life. A breakdown which the medication has stopped him having.

Here is a man who knows that just outside the windows is where the poetry lies, that there are whispers just when he leaves the room. Who is waiting for a storm which can not break, but which he can sense yet not see. His medication keeps it all at bay. McShane’s understanding of the onset of episodes of depression and mania is obvious. There is no great rampage of over-emotion. This is a gentle descent through a violent world.

Opposite him, Suki Webster does a fantastic job in giving depth to the women who will oversee his ascent to Her Majesty. The doctor who pushes him to stick with his programme yet, in the play’s display of the most callous and unthinking behaviour, lets slip that he is part of the study she is writing. No worries, though, he will be known simply as “patient number 12”. It is an expertly revealed moment, the tipping point which gives him the incentive to open the window and let the dreams in.

Best of all she is Effie, the down-and-out artist whose own father suffered similar episodes of manic depression to Moore, and who is living on the streets of London.

Then with a quick change she is a high class prostitute who picks him up in the bar of his hotel. While they both talk in code, they are working from different code books. She, the one which is packed with innuendo and promise of satisfaction at the end of a leather whip. He, as an agent waiting for Her Majesty to call him to her service.

In many ways, this is the defining scene of the whole play and, sadly, it just fails to capture the necessary and complex balance of comedy and sincerity. Director John Nicholson needs to give them greater scope to work with the comedy here, and let it get to an altogether darker place than the rather smutty bit of innuendo it is at present.

What ever the difficulties with this one scene, the whole thing is a finely judged examination of manic depression. It also contains two very strong performances: McShane’s for his understanding of the role; Webster for her sheer versatility.

No ordinary pleasures
The only slightly scary Fiona Paul in Excuse Me, I'm Trying to Please You. EdFringe Zoo Venues

The only slightly scary Fiona Paul in Excuse Me, I’m Trying to Please You

After all this intensity it  something of a relief to roll up to the Zoo Southside and find that Fiona Paul is offering her audience jaffa cakes. She is also intending to have raised their pleasure levels to force ten by the end of her show: Excuse Me, I’m Trying to Please You.

These are no ordinary pleasures, however. Or perhaps they are very ordinary. She becomes the judge of a Welsh W.I. who just wants plain produce – cheese, ginger and courgette is a combo too far when it comes to cake making. A lonely mother-in-law who has invited herself round to live with her son and his wife – and whose good intentions are the stuff of horror. A glamour model posing for a nude shoot, insisting she is condemned with intelligence and looks.

Between sketches and songs a sense of continuity is created with the increasingly creepy messages on Fiona’s answering machine from one Rosemary. Who, it seems, has found a notebook from Fiona’s stolen handbag and is now trying to contact her to give it back. Or is she: Over each successive message, more items are found and the messages become increasingly threatening.

These are all hugely pleasurable. Inconsequential observational sketches which work because of what they allude to, and what they audience brings rather than because of punch lines or comic turns. And by the last number – Pleasuring You sung to the tune of the Lion Sleeps Tonight – with the audience providing the underpinning chorus and blowing bubbles and whistles from the pleasure boxes on each table, well, if it isn’t quite pleasure force ten it is certainly going that way.

If only I could have held on to that pleasure. Nikotine is a puppet version of Chekhov’s short play, On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco, which takes the form a lecture, supposedly on the evils of nicotine. The original is delivered by a man, himself a smoker, who never gets to the point but uses the opportunity to rail against the excesses of his wife who has ordered him to undertake the exercise.

In Milena Milanova puppet version, in Paradise in the Vault, she takes on the role of a slightly embarrassed Russian translator, waiting for Nikolay Nikotine to appear and give his lecture. It’s a grand conceit – and Nikolay’s scarf already draped across the chair gives Milanova an opportunity to build expectations as to his off-centre and slightly bolshy character.

Sadly, none of the expectations are met and her execution is excruciating to watch. Where it could be slick, it is laboured. The scenes are disjointed, there is no coherence to it and it feels as if there is no point. At all.

Thank goodness then for Edinburgh’s amateurs. Down Southside way  Edinburgh People’s Theatre have a fast-moving production of Ne’er The Twain – set in a tenement flat on the Leith-Edinburgh border in October 1919 – and reviewed here.

Then back up at the main theatre of Paradise at St Augustine’s, Eusog have a really strong production of the Drowsy Chaperone. Not quite the five stars it could get with a bit more rehearsal and tweaking, but getting right up there. The review is here.

Tam O’Shanter: Assembly Hall (Venue 35), 12.00-13.30. Details on www.edfringe.com
Mon Droit: Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33), 14.00-15.00.  Details on: www.edfringe.com
Excuse Me, I’m Trying To Please You: Zoo Southside (Venue  82), 15.20-16.15. Details on: www.edfringe.com
Nikotine: Paradise in the Vault (Venue 29), 14.50-15.45 or 14.15-15.10. Details on: www.edfringe.com


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