I reviewed about a quarter of the shows I saw at the Edinburgh Festival. I would just link to the people I wrote them for, but their subediting crushes and banalises everything, so here we are. The deadlines were strict, so these were all pounded out in about ten mins. I'd recommend the exercise to anyone.
Jumping Jesse Jones
One very short route to my heart is cheer in the face of adversity. There's a bucket of adversity facing Mr Jones, as he plays here all month: he plays alone, outside, in a big booze-branded box; half the audience face away, chatting; he also quietly competes with Chapel Street's traffic noise. Playing original acoustic blues, he throws in some slap-bass moves and clattery thrash. His voice is a sweet baritone, but undistinguished. Most of his songs work because, if you master a cliché, it will not offend the ear anymore. A Davy Graham reference - in this town - does him credit, as does a Gram Parsons intonation. His attitude is to Open a guitar-case in hope, and grin at whatever arrives.
Killing Bill Gates by Mechanical Tiger (Free)
Tim is a neurotic minor manager in Bill Gates' charity, scheming to murder him. The main gag is the absurd formality in which his cliched team (Nice Guy, Psycho, and Bitch) go about it. Unfortunately the other jokes are just pop namechecks - Fallout 3, Arnie, Plan B, Cheryl Cole - or limp meme hyperbole - violence to kittens and 'sucking cream from a rectum'. The stage is cramped, so the dialogue relies on stage whispers - characters constantly 'secretly' talking about someone three feet away. (It subverts this eventually, but even then it jars.) There's some ok choreography, some ok monologues, and a lot of naff porn jokes, but this both rushed and plodded its way to its ending.
The Life And Times Of Albert Lymes by Tin Shed Theatre Company (Free)
Hyperactive little one-man psychological comedy. Justin Cliffe offers us a dozen characters who all overbear poor Albert Lyme, a dull neurotic on a very bad day: we're endeared to Lyme because everyone else in his world is so much worse. It's part confession and part pantomime - we're carried along on Cliffe's rapid fire expression. He's indebted to Terry Jones most of all - in his screeching falsetto for women, his explosive gurning, and Lyme's bravura tics. Cliffe rolls well with a couple of mistakes and missed cues - again, moving too fast to linger on them. Some visual gags (a Scrabbleboard becomes a newspaper) and inserted plot holes are also charming. Full of life, but oppressive too.
Charming semi-historical absurdism from two New Zealanders in togas. They mime, pun and fantasise their way between a pair of characters each - Constantine and his DJ slave, or an insecure horse and his masseur. Their timing is endlessly impressive: several times they rebuild their tiny set in sync. The show jumps out of, and ends with They Might Be Giants' 'Istanbul', and shares its gleeful anachronism. The non-sequitur structure is mostly brilliant - the narrator is marked out from other characters only by his wearing a tie (made of newspaper, a sign, an asp, or a sheet). Their Conversion of Constantine (in the world's first disco, 'Studio LIV') is overlong, and Barnie Duncan's mediterranean accent is sometimes dodgy, but this is wonderful, unpretentious postmodern slapstick.
Traumatikon's programme namechecks eleven modernist Names, with Tadeusz Kantor the citation of honour. ("Kantorian" seems to mean repetitive, grotesque, and nonlinear.) It doesn't tell a story. Calling it 'experimental' wouldn't be quite right either, since they're trying to honour forty-year-old work. We follow a restaurant's large macabre cast through their various tics, non-dialogue, beery singalongs and transformations. Characters take it in turns to break through the absurd routine with some Great Change that gives them and us a short reprieve from all the passive horror: a 'queen' becomes Pablo Picasso; a mute is operated on and emerges as Frida Kahlo; a cheery girl channels the goddess Freya in apocalyptic wrath; eventually the grim restaurant itself suddenly becomes a Gorey circus. Traumatikon is cruel to beauty, but if you have patience, and the stomach for masses of irony and black, it's meaty. Meat that's going green.
Cutting the Cord by Flying Eye
Sachi Kimura begins her one-woman show by asking us to mill around onstage. Wrongfooted, we're captivated easily. This is the story of a Tokyo-girl in London - it's actually a composite built from several real migrants' stories. "Sachi" is a solid brick of goodwill, cute as a button - she draws on the walls and spies on us. Her (affected) accent is occasionally problematic, but the rough English is vital to the character: in one skit she rapidly improves it, ending with perfect Newcastlese. She's excellent on the harshness and hypocrisy of nationality and Immigration departments: of the UK Citizenship Test - "I am more Japanese here, but I must also be more British than the British". There's many tiny things executed well; the highlight is an extended metaphor where she, a hermit crab, is stuck between two shells and ostracised by the other crabs. Warming.
Hotel Medea by Zecora Ura Theatre/Para Active
Look at its price (£25, where £7 is the usual Fringe rate). Look at its length (5.6 hours); its start time (11:40pm). But there's more: you will be touched, you'll parade, won't be allowed to be just an audience. The leading lady will kiss you. The men will cross-dress and the women will drink neat gin. Zecora Ura harness the manifold powers of a late night - exertion endorphins; the emotional effects of sleeplessness; chants, and other crowd psychology. They build dreamlike things to replace the dreams we're missing; they will lull you back to childhood; they make absurdity comfortable; they end on the first and strongest narrative device: a real dawn. Hotel Medea blends rave, live documentary, satire, interactive tragedy, and hide and seek. There are hundreds of admirable details, since they use the entire Summerhall building, filling areas with dry ice, strongarming you between them. It is tender, shocking and indescribable. Go; lose sleep over this.
En Route To The Enormous Room by Bald Robin and Mince's Music
Reverent musical of ee cummings' war experiences, staged as a classic BBC radio drama - formal dress and all. To some extent this excuses Leo Robb's overacting (as historically accurate). In hindsight, Cummings' poetry has been demanding musical arrangement - Graham Robb's originals, sung quivering-quavering-timeless by Ailsa Mooney, are great and oddly genreless - neither swing nor cabaret nor dance. His medley of subverted patriotic ditties and 'Madame de la Mort' are particuarly powerful. Unfortunately, the plot and acting combine to make our heroes self-righteous. They tote bravado rather than bravery, even with racism and bellowing irrationality as villains. 'En Route' is noble but simplistic, and so is contained in its line: "I will not kiss your fucking flag!". [Was quite drunk when reviewing this one.]
Debbie Does My Dad by Bobbie Gordon
One-man autobiographical show about taboos and growing up liberal (with a pornstar father). Gordon has to stretch to fill the stage - for example his huskiness when he wants to sound profound, or his unconvincing character acting. The show originated in Gordon's beat poems, and it shows - that familiar spit, inimical to comedy; one's inadequacies swung like a bat. It's Langston Hughes without rhythm, Saul Williams without fire. The main issue though is that the piece uses a confessional format for a man with no sins to offer us. Most of the jokes earn only titters from the crowd, flat and ambiguous as they are. But his thoughts on parenting and gender are sophisticated, and the final skits are better, as Gordon loosens up, declares a new masculinity, and humps the air, into freedom.
Motortown by Exeter University Theatre Company
Danny is a British soldier returning home after a Tour, who suddenly spirals into psychotic freefall. James Dartford, in the leading role, is tense but not really intense, terrible but not really terrorising us enough. The remainder of the cast form a tribunal of scowling sexy things, facing him throughout. A depraved 'philosophical' gunsmith offers Danny a sick ideology: second-hand solipsism. The play climaxes with Danny kidnapping, torturing and murdering a teenager. No logic for the act is in view: the play is muddled, hinting at the brutality of training and war - "I've seen men with their skin all melted" - but failing to cement it. Danny's descent from ordinary aggression into outright ultraviolent ultrabigotry is incomprehensible, and doesn't ring true. Sparse but worthy.
Kev Orkian: The Guilty Pianist
Jongleurs staple ladles on an Eurasian accent and hams out some molto vivace piano medleys. Despite the title there's actually not much piano involved: the set's a series of cheap shots at immigrants, gays, the Swahili language, the women in the audience, and Essex - just like in the good old 1950s. His puncturing of classical airs - he falls asleep during 'Moonlight Sonata' - is charming. He manages to be both camp and blockish, impressively. The short show's only highlight is his comparative history of Western and "Armenian" dancing: the man can move. But otherwise this felt like a showcase for a cheap and nasty old revue. Aims for Dudley Moore but ends up an uncuddly boor.
World Stories From LA by Luna Caps Productions
Arrangement of five short plays sharing a theme in the price of beauty. The set begins with lowest melancholy and gains farce and life with each successive piece. Open on Poe's 'The Oval Mirror', in which an artist's wife is consumed by his representation; then Yukio Mishima's 'Hanjo', which parallels the Poe when the titular lead goes mad from longing, thereby becoming enormously beautiful to the sadist who takes her in. Third up, 'The Blonde' is an outrageous breath of a thing about Stockholm Syndrome and statistics; fourth, a Mexican folktale takes us on a bucolic trip through poverty and witchcraft and love; lastly, they improvise on Hovaness Toumanian's 'The Stupid Man' creating a pleasant shambles while subverting quest parables. The production is informal by necessity - hurrying through four stage changes and five character switches in 100mins, but mostly succeeds.
Dirt by Aireborne Theatre
Magic-realist fairytale telling of bereaved mother Ada's attempt to flee from grief ... and also the incursion of a kingdom of evil Worms. Said worms are the show's jesters and Greek chorus, singing charmingly villainous songs and driving events - like reanimating Ada's dead son as a toy for the Worm King. Laura Marston, as both the Worm Princess and Ada's mother, is properly impressive, craning and straining gymnastically to animate a series of animal puppets - weedling and self-promoting, she'd make a fine Mephistopheles. The ending is suddenly unsentimental, and completely bucks the story arc it had been following, jolting us loose into the venue foyer. Aireborne manage to pull off grisly cuteness better than anyone - and we've had a glut recently.