Oot and aboot on the Fringe. Day (-1)

Aug 5 2011 | By More

The Ducks, Brotherly Love, Maroon Hearts and Emerald Blue…

By Thom Dibdin

Publicity image from The Ducks

On a wet and muggy day in Edinburgh it hardly seemed fair that the fringe was just one day away from opening officially. But hey-ho, it rained on St Swithin’s Day, so folklore suggests Edinburgh is due 40 days rain.

Weather only for ducks, it soon became clear, cycling through the increasingly crowded city where the runnels were awash with water and tourists. And so to the Pleasance Courtyard and The Ducks, a new two-hander by Michael McLean for SEArED.

Fortunately the bullring-style staging of Pleasance Above wasn’t too muggy away from the monsoon. Dean Ashton and Thomas Morrison as the near-anonymous R and K were quick to grab the attention in a production whose incisive script leaves you guessing as each quick-fire scene pulls you into the heart of the play.

SEArED’s declared intent is to stage productions which are “provocative, politically conscious and, above all, entertaining”. The Ducks succeeds on all counts, as the true status of psychotic R and simple K becomes clear as unemployed lads on a training scheme, clearing out the local duck pond. This is a really strong contender, with director Tyne Rafaeli bringing out the kind of performances which keep you changing your mind about the characters right through to the end.

McLean’s script could be a fraction clearer, but sound designer Adam Nicholas has done a great job in creating place and setting, while neat work from designer Madeleine Girling ensures that the two boxes of the minimal set are full of tricks. This is highly recommended stuff.

The big story this year around Edinburgh is, to my mind, the major growth-spurt of the Free Fringe. Free Fringe founder – and now member of the establishment as an elected Director of the Festival Fringe Society – Peter Buckley Hill with his PBH’s Free Fringe and relative newcomers, the Laughing Horse, are taking over the city in a way the conventional venues have been unable to do.

Their model, in which the audience pay for the venue by buying its drink or paninis, allows pubs and cafes to get in on the Edinburgh Fringe act. While the fact that it is free to get in but you pay a donation to leave means that the performers really are singing for their supper. It is a model which is perfect for comedians, but which remains to be proved for theatre.

It has grown, but it has not necessarily bloomed yet.  Over at the Ballroom of the Counting House on West Nicolson Street, the Real London Ensemble’s Brotherly Love demonstrates just one of the reasons why.

Brotherly Love

With the strap line “Sibling rivalry isn’t just for kids”, David Schaal has written a boisterous black comedy about a pair of brothers in their late forties. Ian has made it in the legal profession and about to step into local government with the support of his second wife, Carla, when his dropout young brother Barry turns up, ready to make amends for the years he spent abusing his brother’s good will, stealing from him to buy drugs and generally being obnoxious.

I desperately wanted to love it. The background to the pair’s childhood is 1970s and 1980s South London, the antifascist riots in Lewisham, punk rock and the nuances of how you were defined by whether you liked the  Clash or the Sex Pistols – noting that only girls liked Duran Duran but we all liked Ian Dury. I remember all that.

The problem for the play is that Schaal, of The Office and The Inbetweeners fame, has written the whole thing in clichés. Watching it unfold, with Schaal as Barry, Richard Rycroft in excellent mode as pompous Ian and smoothly-efficient Jan Hirst as Carla, there is a tub-thumping quality to it. Ironically, of the three it is Schaal who is the least able to turn the clichés into believable dialogue.

There is something interesting in there, in a play about dependency and addiction. But it needs a loving rewrite and a serious beefing up of the  role for Hirst, who knocks the two blokes for six when it comes to performance.

All of which isn’t the reason why the Counting House fails as a venue. That’s simply the matter of the constantly throbbing air-conditioning. Admittedly it might have been necessary in the muggy weather, but it made you desperate to escape the venue at the end.

Despite my doubts about the script, the performance itself was easily worth a fiver if you were asked for a donation on the way out. But the venue just made you want escape as quickly as possible with your wallet still firmly in your pocket. Great respect to Schaal for going down this route and I’ll be fascinated to follow how a proper one-hour three-hander will do in the Free Fringe environment.

True Hearts

The Stage, for whom I am the Scottish Correspondent and the Edinburgh resident member of the fringe reviewing team, has decided in its wisdom to hive off the comedy this year to a small but dedicated section of the team.

I might not be seeing any comedy this year, but Thursday night offered the opportunity to witness the next instalment of what has been the biggest joke in town. Supporters of the mighty Heart of Midlothian football club, including myself, were shocked when our manager Jim Jefferies was sacked by our Lithuanian owner just two games into the season and half way through a European tie. Portugese manager Paulo Sergio has the dubious honour of taking over, for the second leg held at Tynecastle on Thursday.

Fortunately Hearts held strong, the weather held up and we won the tie. It was pure time-out from the fringe.

On the way home, I bumped into the cast and companies of Cock and Bull Story and Silence in Court. They were hanging out in the bar of the New Town Theatre on George Street after what appears to have been very successful pair of opening nights. Director Liam Rudden looked the most knackered I have ever seen him, but triumphantly happy. Another member of The Stage team has been tasked with reviewing the shows, but I hope to get in and see both towards the end of their runs.

The Ducks, Pleasance Courtyard, 3-29 August, 3.25pm, £10/£9 pleasance.co.uk

Brotherly Love, The Counting House, 4-28 August (not 17), 5pm, free. laughinghorsecomedy.co.uk


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