Theatre in London’s 2010 Fringe Reviews

Warning: This review may contain spoilers.

I originally posted the reviews below on the London Fringe Festival’s review/discussion board; because that forum is cleared every year, they’re included here for posterity.

Caroline intertwined

Clever show that will improve through the festival.

A series of vignettes and anticlimaxes that explore the ideas of self-identity and self-acceptance, ONEymoon has a lot of promise. It’s a clever idea and has a lot of the hallmarks that I’ve seen in Christel’s previous work, including bold approaches to audience participation, a willingness to take concepts to extremes, and a lot of physicality. Her “Caroline” is “very particular… no, really, very particular“, which has led to a series of exes she has to dodge “like bullets”.

The long “internet dating” segment is a highlight, as are Caroline’s greetings to her friends, “friends” and her large extended family and the speeches from her father and ex-boyfriend; I’d have liked to see more of them, but it is after all a show about her solo wedding and subsequent “oneymoon” and not the wedding party. I’d also like to get a copy of Kathryn Rose’s original song, which is a refreshing change of pace from Sweet Caroline.

I found Friday’s performance a little forced at times and occasionally disjointed, which was somewhat expected for a show that was seeing its first paying audience after a late tech session. However, prior experience from the ’08 festival suggests that Christel and director/co-writer Jimmy Hogg are already tweaking the bits that didn’t work as well as one might have liked; even her appearance at tonight’s NO Show showed changes from the performance six hours earlier.

Living on the fringe

Manic roller coaster revue with depth

From the Greek chorus-influenced opening, it’s apparent that A Few Prozaks Short of a Hap-P Meal © isn’t your typical “mental health show”. It’s part Monty Python meets Crazy People meets medicine show meets late-night infomercial. It’s also got serious segments that, as I understand it, are taken from real-life experiences of the cast (who also form most of the collaborative writing team). The show doesn’t pull punches, and it doesn’t take (many) sides, showing varied perspectives of patients, families and staff of mental health facilities.

Perhaps the funniest sequence in the revue is a riff on the Python troupe’s Four Yorkshiremen sketch which plays just as well as the original (the only time I’ve come across such a thing). It’s also one of the most pointed, describing treatment that, while ridiculous in this context, has a root in truth.

The Yorkshiremen-like sketch is followed by a father’s description of the progression of his daughter’s illness from ages seven to 16. Sean Quigley, who also directed, makes this one of the most touching, effective pieces in the show.

I’m willing to admit that I went into this show with some trepidation about the subject matter and execution. I’m happy to say that it was completely unfounded; it’s not perfect, but A Few Prozaks &c. definitely impresses.

The Boor not a bore

Slow start, but ultimately entertaining

It’s not as immediately engaging as Diva Lounge Productions’ previous Fringe operas, and it’s got a paper-thin plot, but The Boor builds to a satisfying conclusion with some truly funny comedic moments along the way.

I’m hardly an opera maven, but I’ve enjoyed DLP’s previous productions, as well as the Canadian Operatic Arts Academy’s and Pacific Opera Company’s collaborations with Orchestra London. The program calls this an “opera buffa”, or comedic opera, which Wikipedia distinguishes from traditional works by saying that “the main requirement [is] clear diction and facility with patter”, and it certainly lives up to that description.

While I thought the singing and piano accompaniment were well-performed, I found much of the music too abstract and dissonant for my ear. Additionally, several pieces contain overlapping vocal lines from two performers, and I found it difficult to follow one or the other. On the other hand, I found the acting quite enjoyable, with Sonja Gustafson the standout. That’s entirely my taste, though; more accomplished opera buffs’ mileage may vary.

I suspect The Boor‘s yawn, which becomes a “yawn”, is the longest and most musical in opera. It gets the second-biggest laugh of the show; I won’t spoil the biggest.

Tour de force

Disturbing performance by London’s best of a play by one of Canada’s

Daniel MacIvor’s Monster is well-titled. And that’s all I choose to divulge about the plot.

I recently had the opportunity to see MacIvor perform his play This Is What Happens Next in Toronto; it’s very similar to Monster in a number of ways, which is why I can say, without hyperbole, that I believe Justin Peter Quesnelle’s performance may come close to equalling MacIvor’s. The intensity he brings will pin you to the back of your seat… and if you’re in the right (or wrong?) place, maybe more than that….

Since seeing their preview performances in December I haven’t been able to say enough good about Passionfool’s production. If you’re looking to see the class of the 2010 Fringe, this may just be it.

Sleep well.

Verbatim theatre at its finest

True, tragic stories in a premiere performance that must be seen.

I knew when I heard about Mikaela Dyke’s Dying Hard that it would be something special. I had no idea.

One of the miners says “That’s one thing I got, I got lots of nerve.” So does she. This isn’t an easy piece of theatre, for the actor or the audience, but it’s one that defines the term must-see. The true stories of Newfoundlanders involved with the St. Lawrence fluorspar mines, told in their own words, reveal the devastating effects of a sad period in Canadian and Newfoundland history that went almost unreported for forty years, and had largely returned to the shadows in the three decades since. There are wonderful moments of humour—the former boxer’s tales of his exploits in the ring and the story of the VE Day riots are two highlights—yet they’re always tempered by the knowledge of the events that are to follow.

The stories stand alone—indeed, the interviews they’ve been condensed from were published as a book in the 1970s—but what makes Dying Hard shine is the performance. Mikaela doesn’t act these roles so much as embody them. The native Newfoundlander creates characters… no, people… who are likeable, steadfast and accepting, but listen to their voices and look into their eyes: there’s anger and deep hurt there. I’ve never seen such a series of effective physical and vocal transformations aided only by trivially simple props such as a pair of eyeglasses or a hair clip. The huge stage at the Wolf can be a hindrance to a one-person play, but in this case it’s the perfect size; once she launches into a character you don’t notice the stage, the auditorium, or the audience, only the performer.

At today’s performance the first miner (Pat Campbell?) spoke in a strong accent at a speed that I found nearly incomprehensible, but at The NO Show she mentioned other comments to that effect and performed part of his speech at a rate that non-islanders will be able to pick up. I’m also not quite sold on the introductions which take the audience out of the flow of the play, but it’s so important that these people are given names that that’s a minor quibble.

Thank you, Mikaela, for bringing these remarkable people and your amazing performance to London.

Cassandra has a new ally: Ally

Fun new production of a past Fringe favourite

I “couldn’t get enough” when Cassandra played at the London Fringe in 2006, and now that a new production of Briana Brown’s play is here it’ll be easy to see why.

Ally Connelly is excellent as the tightly-wound title character, and performs the 50-minute solo show with apparent ease. Normally I wouldn’t compare the two incarnations, so take it as a huge and well-deserved compliment to the twelve-year-old star, as well as director Shannon Scott, that I’m about to do so: while a pivotal phone call isn’t quite as “heart-wrenching” as in Briana’s original version, it’s awfully close. And there are some great new touches, like a particularly frustrating and hilarious search for… well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it?

Definitely one to check out—and here’s the money quote both the corporate accountant and folk-rock genius would relish—whether you’re 9 or 99.

Well-told story that’s not about World War II

In case you’re wondering, there isn’t a character named Frank either

“Boys suck.”

So declares Anne—with an e, which is the only thing she finds acceptable about the name—at the beginning of the most recent entry in her live-to-video diary. Told from Anne’s safe haven in the attic of her mother’s house, The Frank Diary of Anne otherwise diverges from the volume the title references. For starters, she’s just been dumped by her fiancé, and like a modern-day Miss Havisham she wears her wedding dress as she laments her relationship with the love of her life.

Chloë Ariadne Whitehorn intersperses Anne’s engaging story with past entries from her YouTube-like “vlog” (which is cleverly explained, by the way). These are nice video clips, shot with care and attention to detail; the biggest flaw, unfortunately, is that they’re projected against the ruffled black curtain on the back wall of the McManus, which distorts the image.

Anne’s diary entries are self-indulgent, to be sure, but why write (or record) a diary otherwise? As a device, they’re also a great way to allow the playwright to suggest but obfuscate truths that become all too evident by the end of the play.

I have one outstanding question about a minor plot point that a brief web search hasn’t been able to resolve: is the story of the Romeo and Juliet suicide pact true?

Pitched battle of the sexes

Nice job by a young ensemble

At the centre of Tough! is Tina, a conflicted teenager played by Katie DiTosto. While it initially appears she’s furious at her boyfriend Bobby for making out with another girl at a party, the underlying reason for her anger is soon shared.

Tina’s emotions vary like a roller coaster going through a maze of funhouse mirrors; she’s continually sure of what she wants, but what she wants changes throughout the play. Katie DiTosto does a nice job of bridging each emotional state, sometimes within seconds. Del Brocco’s Bobby, who might be a younger version of his character in P.S. Your Cat Is Dead, is appropriately stunned by the ambush by his girlfriend and her wisecracking best friend, and struggles fiercely to figure out exactly what’s suddenly happening in and to his life. (“Stunned” could be Bobby’s natural state, though: he completely zones out twice, with a comically slack look on his face.)

But it’s Alyssa LaPlume’s Jill who stands out. Because I’d seen a public preview performance of Tough! earlier this month at The ARTS Project, I found I could focus on individual performances rather than the details of the story this time around, and that’s how I discovered the subtleties she brings to the character. There’s hardly a moment where she’s not expressing her character’s opinions through facial expressions and body language, especially during long discussions between Tina and Bobby on the opposite side of the stage; this isn’t mugging for the audience, it’s the genuine, transparent reaction of the actor in character.

I suspect LaPlume may have actually injured herself during one of her fights with Del Brocco, but I can’t be sure. If not, then I’m doubly impressed by her commitment (and perhaps her director’s as well) to showing that a knock-down drag-out fight will have lingering effects: adding a stiffness to the way she moves and using a convenient pop can to temporarily ice a sore wrist are unexpected touches, especially for a Fringe show, that round out what’s already a fine performance. That being said, I still don’t quite buy Del Brocco’s Bobby being physically intimidated by LaPlume’s Jill.

Knowing that it would be on at the festival and I’d be starved for time to write reviews, I took some notes at a public preview performance thinking that they’d be applicable. Well, the best-laid plans, you know? Fortunately I’ve been able to toss most of the critical comments I made at the time; it’s almost like the company had two more weeks of rehearsals or something. The trio of actors who performed well then as individuals has gelled into a cohesive ensemble.