Opening weekend Fringe reviews, 2011 edition

Warning: This review may contain spoilers.

This is a compilation of the reviews posted to the Fringe forums as part of Theatre in London’s 2011 opening weekend review project. I’d like to thank the four other reviewers—Clara Madrenas, Damon Muma, Jeffrey Preston and Laurie Bursch—for doing a fine job, Kathy Navackas and Alison Challis for their support and understanding, and all of the participants in the 2011 London Fringe Theatre Festival.

archy & mehitabel

This show employed the most endearing uses of movement and voice to build character. It’s impossible not to like Culbert’s shuffling, clawed Archy or his slinking, prancing Mehitabel, and the minor characters (like the worm and the ant—they were awesome) are equally well-rendered. The script was compiled carefully and effectively by Culbert, who’s an obvious archy and mehitabel fan, and excerpts were drawn out in such a way that Marquis’ original social commentary doesn’t lose any of its bite here. Culbert made all of the above seem easy, which I imagine was no small task.

The piece is of course not a heavily plot-based thing, which isn’t a problem because the characters have such depth and are so loveable, but I wouldn’t see this show if I was looking for something more plot-driven.

And um, I guess it’s kinda standard to sign off an archy and mehitabel review with “toujours gai”? So, that! —Clara Madrenas

Assassins

Hail (of bullets) to the chief

While it’s not the most engaging of Sondheim’s canon, OKTC Alumni & Staff’s production of Assassins—featuring an eleven-person cast plus seven ensemble players and a four-piece live band—definitely does justice to the musical.

Three of the four most well-known (attempted or successful) presidential assassins get a lot of the stage time, and they’re played by three of the stronger singers in the cast, Micah Richardson (John Wilkes Boothe), Melissa Peters (Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme) and Will Johnston (John Hinckley). Lee Harvey Oswald doesn’t appear until the last quarter of the play—and in what must be an oversight, the actor isn’t credited in the program’s cast list or biographies [this is traditional and deliberate –ed.]—but his introduction and the story of his eventual temptation are really the meat of the production.

For a “dark musical comedy” there aren’t many comic moments in Assassins, but Fromme and Sara Jane Moore’s abortive attempt on Gerald Ford is a happy exception. With a name like Assassins, though, one doesn’t expect gut-busting laughs.

Some members of the cast have occasional trouble with Sondheim’s music, which isn’t completely unexpected given the composer’s reputation for challenging scores, but they generally recover within a few bars. —Peter Janes

Banjovial: Pickin n’ shtick

Pickin’ on obvious targets

I love banjos. Tony Molesworth does, too. So of course he has to spend the opening of the show doing a few goofy one liners putting them down. That’s just what you do when you have a banjo. He then goes on to poke fun at marriage, fat people, politicians and more of the usual fare. The other problem is that by and large the jokes just aren’t funny. It’s shallow “100 of the funniest jokes to get your family howling volume 8″ type stuff. Set-up, punchline, chuckle at own joke when the audience doesn’t, strum the banjo, repeat, and again.

The show suffers from a technical standpoint as well. Molesworth’s voice is routed through the theatre’s main sound system, whose echoes make it difficult to catch all the words. This problem is compounded by his rushed, sometimes mumbled delivery and the banjo’s notes channelled tightly by an amp on stage. This is especially evident on many of the short songs (mostly parodies) that break up the performance.

Despite the technical issues and his not being much of a singer, the songs are the best part of the show. They are usually a little bit funnier than the rapid-fire one-liners, and vary things up somewhat. Plus you can appreciate a song somewhat without needing to pay attention to the lyrics and Molesworth is a competent picker. There are surprisingly few songs, though.

Things pick up slightly toward the middle of the show and I managed to get a few chuckles out, but overall it’s a very long 55 minutes and you’re not likely to leave the theatre any more jovial than when you came in. —Damon Muma

Beowulf: User-Friendly

Beowulf: Fringe-Friendly

I’ve no idea how the students in this show “failed their exam” on Beowulf and Grendel, because they seem to know a heck of a lot more about the story than most people. But it’s a reasonable framing device and leads to an entertaining “impromptu” retelling by the (also extremely curiously prepared) class.

Much of the cast appeared in last year’s The Idi-Odyssey, a similar take on Homer’s epic, also written by Burton Bumgarner. Dale Hirlehey directs this year’s outing, and has done a great job of getting the young actors to project into the huge Wolf space they’ve been assigned.

Of particular note (and unfortunately I don’t have a cast list; perhaps some of the many parents in the audience can fill in the blanks) are the actors playing Beowulf and Grendel and the three news announcers/reporters. (In a nod to adults, most of the added characters are named for British authors, with the principal’s name a subtle wink to a fictional character better known by another name.)

I can’t let the irony of a group of home-schooled students performing a show based in a school classroom pass without comment. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just funny.

The target audience is definitely parents, but as a guy off the street I had a good time. Nice job, Different Drum students! —Peter Janes

Beyond Puppets Who Kill

Best puppet show ever

As a fan of the Comedy Network show Puppets Who Kill, this performance was everything I had hoped it would be. With the same biting, twisted humour of the aforementioned show, Pattison’s performance is based around telling stories of his time becoming a puppeteer, working with Jim Henson and eventually developing the show this piece is named after. A good mix of story and back and forth puppet banter, similar to the style of Jeff Dunham but way, way better, it was interesting to learn more about the television industry while also having some good laughs from some sick jokes.

As the humour is quite dark, this show may not be for everyone. Do not be fooled by the fact that there are puppets in this show—it is NOT for children. A major part of the show revolves around breaking the stereotypical “cute and cuddly” image that most puppets have, hence the title referring to puppets who are murderers. If you loved the Muppets or Fraggle Rock as a kid, check this show out and see what a puppet show for adults is like. —Jeffrey Preston

The Black Jew Dialogues

Dialogues versus discussions

The Black Jew Dialogues presents a discussion that surely needs to happen, but at some point it loses the thread. Or maybe it just lost me. I’m not sure.

The problem, I suspect, is that Larry Jay Tish and Ron Holmes know each other too well, and indulge each other as a result. In fact, they make the point themselves that their “70-minute” show runs 80 minutes (or longer, as today), an indication that it’s not as tight as it apparently once was.

They’ve got some great points to make, and raise some interesting parallels that I hadn’t considered before: the idea that Jews are also African slaves (because Egypt is an African country) was a minor revelation, albeit one that they reject almost immediately.

The prepared sketches are pointed; strongest is their piece about ONE, a group that disperses black people to nontraditional locations to gradually make white people feel more comfortable with them. A sketch presenting a discussion between two family matrons, one Jewish and one black, is also effective once they finally get into it.

I can’t help but think that the mock game show “Jew/Not A Jew” deflates a lot of their points about racism, however. The question: can you tell by looking whether celebrities like Scarlett Johanssen, Whoopi Goldberg or Alex Rodriguez are Jewish? I’m a huge fan of “Weird Al” Yankovic, the game’s first subject, and can honestly say that not only have I never thought about whether he’s Jewish or not, now that I know the answer it doesn’t make a shred of difference.

The show does provoke discussion, and it’s unfortunate that it ran long because the audience comments in the very brief Q&A that followed were revealing. Perhaps more revealing than the show itself. —Peter Janes

Bursting Into Flames

Not only is Martin Dockery an incredibly talented performer—overflowing with energy, which he controls perfectly—the script is hilarious as well as moving. Dockery’s comic timing is basically flawless. I recommend this for pretty much anyone who wants to see a show that doesn’t have a single boring moment. I also recommend this for anyone who’s enjoyed Jayson McDonald shows in the past, as Bursting Into Flames is similar in tone, energy, sense of humour, seamless transitions funny moments to the touching ones (which are still, often, pretty funny)…

Notably, though, I don’t know that I would recommend this show to anyone with hearing or language comprehension difficulties. Dockery speaks incredibly quickly at times, and though the sped-up speech was employed effectively, it wasn’t always easy to catch up with.

Otherwise, see this show. —Clara Madrenas

Chaotica

The game of life — “Pick a card!”

For those of you who missed it last time (or want to see it again), Christel Bartelse brings her award-winning show back to London. (“Pick a card!”) A 2008 London Fringe Impresario winner, Chaotica finds our heroine trapped in a board game, where she gets to try out a bunch of life choices. This well-constructed show includes comedy, tragedy, song, dance (including a show-stopping restaurant scene) and even a bit of puppetry—truly, something for everyone.

“Pick a card!” —Laurie Bursch

Chipmunks Ate My Bike!

Bicycle, bicycle, bicycle

A man and his 15-year-old daughter. Two bikes. And a 3,000 km trip. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, obviously it ends well, because Kevin Kennedy survives to tell the tale. And a great tale it is, with wildlife (“Awk! Awk! Awk!”) of many phyla, vehicles of many types, and people good and bad. Oh, and a lot of rocks, lakes and trees, at least at the beginning.

Kennedy tells his story with energy and heart, and a bit of harmonica playing. While few of us would want to try this for real, living it through his storytelling is a grand way to experience this crazy adventure. —Laurie Bursch

Crabcakes

All you need is Kid Cash

Crabcakes is to Elvis what The Rutles is to The Beatles: a loving but loopy sendup of an iconic figure in 20th century music.

Presley’s film career was less than stellar, and Crabcakes takes full advantage of that fact. It also takes full advantage of London’s own Matt Martin, combining his real-life roles as an award-winning Elvis impersonator and divinity student at Western.

As for the supporting cast, Chris Bancroft plays the Brando-esque rebel-without-a-clue so far over the top that he must need oxygen after each show. Megan Schroder’s funny, naive-when-necessary “Gherkin” Perkins is a hoot, especially when ogling her beau with 45rpm-sized eyes. (Kids, ask your grandparents.) Chris McAuley, Kim Kaitell, Aimee O’Beirn and Edward Rozman each have their own goofy charm. Musical director and composer Stephen (Steve) Holowitz leads a tight band and even gets some lines. And, most importantly, no one needs a crab bucket to carry a tune.

My only disappointment was in the sound: the actors wear headset microphones so they can be heard over the live band, and the muddiness from the amplification obscures some of the otherwise-hilarious lyrics. —Peter Janes

The Donnelly Sideshow

Jeff Culbert has one of the most winning stage presences I’ve ever seen. As soon as the lights turn on, you just immediately like the guy. He’s got no shortage of talent, either, and The Donnelly Sideshow displays this well. The script is simple and clear, the songs are catchy and clever, and the jokes are subtly delivered and well-timed. The script does at times seem the tiniest bit scattered and unpolished, as musical revue scripts can often be, but as there actually weren’t that many songs a stronger script would have been appreciated. Otherwise, the show is local history made fun and accessible and presented by a charming host, so go see it!

Side note: Culbert is collecting “Donnelly stories” as he tours the show across Canada. That is awesome. If you’ve got a little anecdote or bit of history you want to share with him, be sure to see the play and chat with him afterwards. —Clara Madrenas

Earshot

There’s little I can say here that hasn’t already been said. Passionfool just doesn’t know how to produce a show that isn’t great. The sound design, specifically, was what really made the piece: the anxious rhythms at the show’s outset as the apartment’s walls were laid, the migraine-like hums between scenes, the repetitive ice-cream truck jingle… it was impossible not to feel the character’s aural neurosis along with him.

The only complaint I had with Earshot is that Quesnelle’s performance was perhaps a little too one-note neurasthenic. It was sort of numbing to spend seventy-five minutes just wishing for a calmer, quieter, less tense moment. This likely has a lot to do with Panych’s script, which, for large chunks of the show, certainly isn’t overflowing with emotional variety.

That being said, the performance was still commendable. The show is certainly worth seeing, as Fringe audiences seem to have figured out already, so show up early to make sure you get a seat. —Clara Madrenas

Feats of Mystery

This show is magic

A deductive argument provides conclusive proof of its conclusions; if the premises are true, the conclusion must also be true. For example:

I love magic shows. This is a magic show. I loved it.

Actually, this argument isn’t always true – I only love the magic shows where the magician captivates me.

Keith Brown says that he loves doing magic, which is why he’s been doing this steadily for nine years. And it shows in his skillful performance. Brown is also charming and engaging, and his interaction with the audience is honest and authentic—he seems as delighted to be there as we are.

This is definitely a magical magic show. —Laurie Bursch

From Surviving to Thriving

A survivor’s story

First-time playwright and performer Jo is a survivor of child abuse. She has a terrible true story to tell, and she’s brave enough and strong enough to share it through the poetry and essays of her teenager years, and her reminiscences of her subsequent journey.

The show uses a few props—a screen with projected images, a few pieces of furniture, and the book that contains her early written work. It is this last prop that is the most problematic—while Jo uses it to read her poetry, it also appears to contain the rest of her script, and after a good start, she relies heavily on it, reading, rather than talking, to her audience. It may have been opening night jitters—as noted earlier, this is her first Fringe, and it’s a difficult tale to tell.

The woman we saw during Thursday’s performers’ showcase was articulate and confident, and I do hope that over the course of her run that Jo brings more of this to her show. She has an important story, and it deserves to be told well. —Laurie Bursch

In Pursuit of Triviality

The Wrath of Khan

Jesus, Gandhi, Hitler and Genghis Khan walk into the Louvre. John F. Kennedy looks at them and asks, “what is this, a joke?”

Billed as a satirical musical—satirical of what is unclear, but I propose it’s a parody of Assassins, coincidentally also being performed during Fringe 2011—In Pursuit of Triviality is a mixed bag at best.

It’s rare to see an original musical at Fringe, and the music is the strongest part of this production. Dan Mallett (Gandhi) and Nicole Campbell (Genghis Khan) have strong voices, easily projecting into the cavernous Wolf Performance Hall, and the composers have put together a challenging, unique score. The lyrics are to the point and usually (but not always) function to drive the story forward.

Unfortunately the book is another story altogether. With a premise such as this show’s, you can’t look for logic or internal consistency, so when Hitler doesn’t know Paris is in France, or JFK references Oswald yet scoffs at the possibility of being shot in a car, you have to let it pass.

But there are issues nevertheless: puzzling developments, conversations filled with perfunctory decisions and unnecessary detail, and scenes that just… end. The script is also peppered with f-bombs that come across as an imitation of South Park’s version of edginess—at one point, for no discernible reason, one character explodes with “f— you, Jesus!”

The most confusing aspects of the plot are everything to do with John F. Kennedy. He’s… what? a narrator? a butler? an alien with the ability to teleport? (No, really: he’s not in the car when the team drives to France, but manages to pop up at the heist.) He enters and exits the same scenes multiple times, generally to deliver non sequitur questions or answer things he’s not present in the scene to hear.

Good on the Second Cast company for setting their sights high. This one falls well short of its goal, but I’m curious to see where they go from here. —Peter Janes

An Inconvenient Truthiness

See this show. Truthfully.

Readers digest of this review? GO—SEE—THIS—SHOW! Please support this performer.

My only criticism is that some of the stage movement seemed awkward and a bit forced, but Johnson is a Fringe virgin whose stagecraft is only going to get better as she does these shows more often. And she will be doing more because she has all the raw materials to be a real dynamo.

The writing is unbelievably tight, providing a great range of emotions. Although this shouldn’t be a surprise, as Johnson has had years of experience as a writer, it was her delivery of emotionally charged scenes that really stood out for me. While the play had its jokes, what was the true power of this show (and something to behold) was Johnson’s pure and harsh interrogation of the world of fandom. In many ways, this performance depicts the exhilaration of being a fan and, in some ways, perhaps captures some of the beauty Johnson is longing for in the world of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

This play is as endearing as it is sharp and left me thinking and processing for hours after.

Take the time to check out this show and reward Johnson, not just for being a big Daily Show nerd, but also for being a Class-A entertainer. —Jeffrey Preston

jem rolls IS PISSED OFF

jem rolls’ poetry is at times insightful and abstract, at others blunt and a little vulgar, but always witty and eloquent. His stage presence is welcoming and engaging, and the show handily tackles the themes of and unwillful personal stupidity and introspection-gone-shitty in ways that never edge toward the melodramatic. The play is funny, though not riotously, and was actually much more thought-provoking than it was hilarious, which was something I didn’t expect.

One note is that the lighting is slightly overwrought. There was simply too much going on, lighting-wise, and it distracted from the words which are the real star of the show here.

Because the poetry is so well-crafted and complex, go see this show when you’re ready to pay close attention. The words of the poetry and the journey of introspection you’ll be taken on by jem rolls deserve the concentration it takes to get the most out of the piece. That, or you can see it twice to catch what you missed the first time through. —Clara Madrenas

Joe’s Café

Drop on by Joe’s Café

Most Fringe shows are one story, or maybe two. At Joe’s Café, Rupert Wates and friends (opening night had him sharing the stage with Stacey Lorin [following nights added Bremner Duthie –ed.]) tell more than a dozen true stories in song. Wates is British, but now lives in the U.S., and while these are songs of people from his adopted home, they ring true for all of us, with tales that are inspiring, sad, and honest. And equally important, the songs, all written by Wates, and accompanied by his skilled acoustic guitar playing, are well crafted and beautifully performed.

While Joe’s Café doesn’t serve up traditional Fringe fare, it’s a hearty meal for the ears and the soul. (And you can get take-out: Joe’s Café is available on CD as well.) —Laurie Bursch

Lizardboy

Impressive depiction of youth

There are few plays that do a good job of representing the storytelling style of a child, with its frantic pace and erratic diversions, while still holding together a cohesive story. Gomez’s play Lizardboy is one of the few I’ve seen that does it really, really well.

A richly constructed tale following the life of a young troublemaker, this show will have you both chuckling and cringing as it explores barrio life in the ’80s. The story is truly engaging, performed excellently by Gomez, and makes you really empathize for the main character as he explains some of his recent hijinks. What starts off fairly light-heartedly takes an emotional turn toward the end, as the play subtly, but effectively, depicts the insidious cycle and evolution of violence.

With equal parts humour and emotional depth, Lizardboy is a show worth taking the time to see. —Jeffrey Preston

Love Is…

Much more than tutus and toe shoes

I know nothing about dance, but I know what I like. I like Love Is….

More than anything, it’s an impressive display of artistic athleticism. Sixteen dancers performing on the Wolf stage is something to see.

Not having the vocabulary or experience to discuss details of the performance, the best I can do is to make a comparison to Dixieland and New Orleans jazz. Those styles feature pieces where the music develops from a single, clear melody to a series of overlapping, seemingly cacophonous variations, then returns to its simple origin. Replace the instrumental combo with dancers and you’ve got an approximation of the effect.

The music and performance are well matched; most evocative is the segment set to Johnny Cash’s version of Hurt, a cover I’ve long disliked but am re-evaluating after its use here.

I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed Love Is…, and at how much I’m now anticipating their Fringe entries in future years. —Peter Janes

Manor Park

Letters from Manor Park

Dear Fringe Goer,

My favourite one-person shows tend to be those where the performers tells stories of their lives. Most of them have far more years of source material than 16-year-old writer/performer Adam Corrigan Holowitz. But don’t let that fool you. Manor Park is as full and rounded a piece as any produced by a performer three or four times his age.

While the concept is small—tales from an island of a neighbourhood in London’s southwest—the show is big and wonderful, filled with poetry and politics. It’s exuberant and real, with moments of joy and sadness, and all those things that make us human.

‘Til I write you next,
LMB

Men Telling Stories

Fantastic energy and much laughter

Wow. I really thought I didn’t need to sit for an hour listening to a couple guys talk about guy things and being men and all that. I sure was wrong!

Matt Stewart and Peter Nielsen came busting into London Monday night, straight out of Montreal Fringe, and with a crazy amount of energy. You know how toddlers run around with so much energy you can’t fathom how they have it all stored up in their tiny bodies? This was a bit like that. But they weren’t breaking my stuff or putting their own lives in danger, so the energy was infectious and by the end I felt like I’d got a good workout from the laughing. The hometown crowd loved it (Matt’s from around here) but word from other festivals is that they have this insane level of energy down to a tightly controlled science wherever they go.

Basically you’ve got two friends trading stories rapid-fire style about the young-man experience, the growing up, relating to girls, etc. It’s a subject that gets done to death, but they keep the funny and the entertainment on overdrive. Regardless of what they’re saying, just watching the two on stage is a delight—their physical shenanigans (with their faces as well as their bodies) make for the funniest moments. The musical moments were also uniformly highlights.

Part of me wonders if laying out the connecting theme was even necessary, but there are only a few dull moments here and much laughter. Can’t wait to see more from these guys! —Damon Muma

Mysteries of the Unexplained

Not a lot of magic

Mr. Eman presents a magic show that tries to tie its tricks together as an exploration of history’s mysteries. It’s a neat idea that probably could work, but the paranormal education and the feats of magic are both too sparse to carry the show.

It may have been a case of opening-night jitters, but the performance I saw suffered greatly from underpreparedness and meandered too much to engage. The documentary part of the show is delivered without conviction, so none of the “mysterious facts” seem particularly compelling. Eman appears interested in what he’s talking about but his delivery often finds him searching for words and names.

Eman’s stage persona is earnest, and a bit awkward. I don’t mind that it’s not all cloaks and pizazz here; the apparent discomfort can be endearing. The tricks themselves are often quite good, but the attached overarching theme isn’t polished enough to support them; it feels like it’s just spacing the good tricks frustratingly far apart.

There’s potential here, and maybe it will grow into something more as Mr. Eman gets more performances under his belt and tightens the flow throughout the week. As of opening weekend it has a ways to go.

Mythic

Bro Meets Greek Comedy

An attempted merging of classic Greek theatre and something more akin to an SNL Digital Short, Mythic tells the story of a guy stuck in his youth as life quickly passes him by. While this play certainly had it’s stumbling points, it relied heavily on the strength of Campbell and Davidson’s acting ability to draw the audience into an otherwise cliche and worn plot line. I cannot stress enough that the on-stage dynamics of Campbell and Davidson make this a show worth seeing alone, as they play off each other perfectly and seem to just have a really good time telling a story that’s important to them.

Where the play really struggled was in how stylized lines—where part of the play is narrated in a style likely to be seen on a Stratford stage—conflicted with how the rest of the play consists of “live action” moments that are more like watching clips from College Humour, relying heavily on “bro language. ” Curiously, my favourite parts of the play were when Campbell and Davidson were providing the snappy, rhyming narration of the action that has all the zing of vaudeville infused with clever curls of Greek mythology. It was in these “high brow” moments that the show really shone, only to be bogged down with blandness and insincerity of the “bro code” and cultural references that are likely only funny to a 20-something audience. In short, the light and humorous moments really hit home while the emotional and dramatic parts often didn’t live up to the level Campbell and Davidson were trying to take the audience.

Aside from some lighting problems and a few flubbed lines, no doubt nerves from this being their first performance, this is a show that will only get stronger as Campbell and Davidson ease into the show and the audience grows toward the end of the week.

If you’re into the “bro” world and are looking for a fun tale about love and growing up, this could be the play for you. —Jeffrey Preston

The Nona

An odd infestation

So your lovely new home comes with… an old Italian woman? It’s an absurd concept, but one that the Stolen Theatre Collective spins into an entertaining little piece of theatre. While the hook may not be quite big enough to hang a 50-minute show on, the three performers, assisted by two prop wranglers, are strong and the set, props, and “special effects” make this well worth seeing. —Laurie Bursch

Oh, That Wily Snake!

This is a fun and kind of surrealist piece with very strong performances and a ton of laughs. It was enjoyable and quite short, so definitely worth seeing. The beginning was a little “huh?” and the end was sort of abrupt, but the charisma of Quesnelle and Dockery as well as the show’s snappy and amusing dialogue make up for this handily. Oh, That Wily Snake! functions as a really good companion piece to Bursting Into Flames, so I’d recommend seeing both if you liked one of the two. —Clara Madrenas

The Old Maid and the Thief

Third time lucky

With two prior short operas staged at the Fringe festival, Diva Lounge Productions’ third could have felt like old hat. Fortunately that’s not the case: their production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s radio opera The Old Maid and the Thief switches from a balanced male-female cast to a three-woman/one-man ratio (Paul Grambo reads the narrator role, but surprisingly doesn’t sing) and makes a large change to the dynamic by doing so.

Moments of high drama and high (and low) comedy, combined with more realistic characters and relationships than most classical operas, make it easy to follow the story. The deception of one character is straight from the melodrama textbook—down to the equivalent of a mustachio twirl, albeit more subtle—but trying to anticipate the conclusion is a mug’s game. It’s possible to say, without revealing too much, that the title is more clever than it might seem on first reading. —Peter Janes

The One

First things first, if you’re a fan of Sex and the City, you will probably love this. June Morrow’s “Jane Love” character is pretty much Carrie Bradshaw 2.0, complete with a bunch of what-is-love platitudes, descriptions of almost all men as “tall” and “dark”, and an attitude that seems more than happy to ignore that there is anything in this world that anyone, ever, might consider more important than their “love life”. Jane Love also seems quite comfortable ignoring the existence of people that aren’t heterosexual. Every slide-show picture example of “love” was a man and woman (white, unless being used as an example of “other cultures” i.e. looking emphatically “ethnic”… even “tribal”…), except for one slide of Mr. Burns and Smithers that was presented as a joke. It was kind of a bummer.

Anyway, the fact that The One‘s subject matter at times bordered so closely on trite was not nearly as frustrating as the show’s timing. Morrow is a likable performer and has some charisma, but her timing was quite shaky, with laugh-breaks that lingered just that little bit too long on her do-you-think-this-is-funny face. The use of PowerPoint was usually timed quite well, except for the video pieces, which were also full of strange uncomfortable pauses between lines.

Admittedly The One does have a fair few clever bits, and if you’re interested in romantic comedy, it’s a must-see as it does the genre pretty much by-the-book. It also could be worth seeing for touring performers, who might recognize their own experiences in Love’s story. At the very least, maybe see it to support Morrow, who has some potential and could use a good audience to feed off of.

…Otherwise, don’t feel too bad staying home. —Clara Madrenas

Operation 87

Ginger Ails

First off, this is definitely not a show I would normally have any interest in seeing. As a pretentious guydude and something of a feminist, I get frustrated at things that follow the familiar narrative where a woman defines herself through her relationships with men (or vice versa, really).

Thankfully, Operation 87 is entertaining enough that I could enjoy it anyway. Adrianne Gagnon as Maggie Dale does a good job making her past come to life through the voices of her young self, her mother, and other school friends. We hop around through humorous tales of growing up awkward and ginger and the quest for true love. There are some really funny moments and Gagnon’s bashful stage persona is charming.

I’m not convinced the operation itself is fully in character (but it’s funny enough), or that the conclusion makes complete sense. It seems like there could have been more elaboration on the later period of Maggie’s life, even though the elementary school stuff is funniest, just to tie the past to the present a little more directly.

It may not be to your taste if you don’t go for the cute, romantic slice of life stuff. The show is going to be hugely entertaining for the right audience, though… and still fun for the wrong one. —Damon Muma

oz in a clozet

Going into the clozet

Another absurd concept at The Arts Project. Playwright Len Cuthbert (who seems to have a thing about engagement rings) has written a clever script, with smart dialogue that’s brought to life by the two leads. Tammy Vink is brilliant as the spirited Blair; she is well matched by Ray Wiersma in the less showy role of Chet. And who knew there were such creative costumes to be found in a custodial closet?

Despite an odd turn at the end of the show, the entire audience was smiling as they came out of this closet. —Laurie Bursch

A Piece of: My Heart (Breaking)

Amazing physical ability

Several hours after seeing this performance I’m still left perplexed by how I feel about it. Selinger is a truly talented dancer who performs some extremely difficult break-dancer moves, some of which are done seemingly in slow motion, and employs lighting to create haunting and wonderful shadows on the walls of the McManus. Visually, this play had a lot to offer.

However, without Selinger’s dancing ability the show would be significantly less watchable. Perhaps I didn’t get it, but I just couldn’t get into the story of the show. The writing seemed flimsy and the stuttering delivery, although it made sense at first, became frustrating and jarring. When combined with the dancing, while there were some obvious correlations, I found myself questioning the connection between the dance, the spoken word, and the description of the performance written in the handbook.

If you are interested in interpretive breakdancing and want to see an extremely talented performer, check this one out. —Jeffrey Preston

Raven Causes Mischief: Ancient Haida Stories

Raven causes magic

Who knew what Raven was capable of? Building the world from scratch is just the beginning. With quiet intensity, Kung Jaadaa (Roberta Kennedy) shares traditional Haida stories of Raven and his people, both the two-leggeds and the four-leggeds. Without frenetic movement or any of the other usual tricks of the solo storyteller, Kennedy’s compelling delivery keeps her audience enraptured with these magical tales. It’s a wonderful show, and perfect for two-leggeds of all ages. —Laurie Bursch

Red

The main issue with Red is that the target audience is entirely unclear: it was perhaps too gory for children, along with some grown-up references that might fly over tinier heads, yet too immature for adults.

While the performer’s charisma and energy in movement were fantastic despite apparently being sick, and the audience participation/improvised elements were extremely well-designed, the script left much to be desired with the constant self-deprecating “where is this going?” lines that hit just a little too close to home. Also, the inconsistent accents (Italian? British? etc.) throughout the piece were somewhat irritating, and needed to either get better or get out.

However, this young performer could use your support as he is clearly full of potential. And the show is refreshingly short… so certainly don’t rule this one out entirely if you’ve got 45 Fringe minutes to fill. —Clara Madrenas

R.I.S.K.

R.E.V.I.E.W.

R.I.S.K. is turning out to be quite a divisive show. I’ve talked to people who loved it, people who loathed it and people who just weren’t sure what to think. I think writer/performer Michael Davidson would like it that way. He doesn’t want this to be “easy” theatre.

It takes some amount of chutzpah (that means it’s a bit risky) to simply say “take a risk” in order to sell your show to potential brains-in-seats. Indeed that, and the program’s brief “something completely different” warning, actually says quite a lot about the show. It says it wants to be challenging and unlike things you’ve seen before. The type of show that will shake things up. Maybe make you really think about who you are and the world around you. It doesn’t say if it succeeds, because that’s in the audience’s court. And I guess for some it does. For me, not exactly.

I had the same trouble with R.I.S.K. I have with a lot of message theatre. I found it heavy handed and a little bit too into itself. The main character’s almost antagonistic attitude, while thematically appropriate, did the opposite of draw me in.

There were some genuinely funny parts, mostly when Davidson’s manner went directly against the subject matter, and some amusing improv with (and by) audience members. A very worthwhile mantra pops up several times, and there’s not much to say against the show’s overall message. I have to give R.I.S.K. credit for trying something original: combining improv, clowning, comedy and storytelling into a new idea for what a performance can be. It’s just the whole doesn’t hide its parts well enough to rise above them.

I can’t be sure how the show I saw compares to other performances, as it is at least partially built around improv (though I expect the main gist of the piece and many of the lines to remain fixed). It’s an interesting piece, but throughout the performance I found myself rarely educated or entertained. —Damon Muma

The Rocky Horror Show

One for the fans

To preview this review, in the interest of full disclosure, we wanted to mention that we are not fans of the movie this is based upon. In fact, Jeff has never even seen the movie (you may lynch him later).

This show is clearly for “the fans”—if you are a fan of The Rocky Horror Picture Show you will love this performance. In fact, the cult viewing “things” work even better at a live show than when watching the movie on the big screen. The singing is great, the lighting and sounds are polished and it’s difficult to not be entertained by the spectacle of the whole thing.

For those who haven’t seen Rocky (or are simply not fans), this show will likely leave something to be desired. The staging was cluttered and seemed sloppy, and the source material seems trite and has lost much of its “offensive” power in the modern age. Extremely uncomfortable was the bumping and grinding of scantly glad girls and boys who are much, much younger than some of the lead male actors. Further, the night we saw the play had a much stronger focus on yelling “slut” at Janet than “asshole” at Brad—frankly there’s something unsettling about a crowd yelling “slut” at a teenage girl with great enthusiasm.

So, if you’re a fan of Rocky Horror, by all means check it out–you’ll enjoy. If not, this is one show you can probably take a pass on and not regret a thing. —Jeffrey Preston and Clara Madrenas

ShLong Form Improv

Dynamic improv with an extra level of difficulty

Improv comedy works best in a small venue with a large audience. So that’s two strikes against ShLong Form Improv before they even get on stage at the Wolf Performance Hall.

But like the best sluggers, they swing for the fences. In tonight’s debut, they came up with a stand-up triple.

Per standard practice, the group takes suggestions from the audience that they use in brief scenes. Where they distinguish themselves is by then taking those scenes and combining them into a longer narrative. Tonight two short pieces involving fraternity initiation rites and Santa Claus turned into a bizarre corporate conspiracy to destroy a union striking for fewer benefits; the second set of games created a social experiment gone wrong, leading an escaped subject to meet her estranged father in the Canadian wilderness.

Very funny stuff. It’s even better when you’re there to see it happen—so go already! —Peter Janes

6 Guitars

A genuine good time

This is an easy show to review just as it is an easy show to watch. No tricks or metaphors or bones buried under the porch. Just an hour of high quality, joyful entertainment. Orlando’s Chase Padgett bounces between six very different guitar players as they explain their chosen style of music in words and song and tell us a little bit about who they are.

There are many very funny moments, created naturally (by letting the characters be themselves) and through some well-handled audience interaction. Padgett’s charisma and infectious enthusiasm flows throughout and there’s barely a dull moment to be found. There is plenty of hilarity, a few moments of unexpected sobriety, some great improv, and a few lessons on what separates and unites six disparate genres of music.

There’s nothing earth-shattering here and I didn’t find the end segment as impactful as it wanted to be, but 6 Guitars did make it extremely easy to have a great time for the hour it lasted and beyond. Recommended for all. —Damon Muma

Skydiving in Suburbia

Matt. Miller owns the stage

Hating on suburbia is kinda the thing to do these days (not without good reason, mind you). Because of that, I was somewhat expecting to have a “been there, done that” reaction to a show that makes itself out to largely be about the suburban experience and its shortcomings. There is a bit of that in Skydiving in Suburbia, but there is a lot more to the show.

To me, the show is more about activism, words and performance. Mostly words. Mississauga’s Matt. Miller is a 22-year-old slam poet with background in the punk movement. The show is a set of poems loosely about him growing up and reconciling his views into that thing people like to call the “real world”.

Miller, dimly lit by coloured onstage lamps he flicks on and off from poem to poem, owns the stage with confidence that never overflows into cockiness. His vocal delivery is almost musical, having great rhythm, tone, and dynamics. His topics are explored with humour, witty wordplay and vivid imagery. A few metaphors come across heavy handed, but the show moves and changes fast enough that you can’t be stuck dwelling on specific weaknesses for long. Like all great slam poetry, the words and ideas come fast. He does a great job of varying up the pace and makes excellent use of the time he’s on stage.

It’s refreshing and inspiring to see someone passionate about art and the world doing what they love and doing it well. There is room for growth script-wise, and I hope Miller keeps honing this craft. Perhaps not to all tastes, but definitely worth seeing! —Damon Muma

Souled Out

Met the devil in the middle of the road

Dunstan Saint, a rock star who has seen better days, tells the story of his life and the sacrifice he made to get where he is. It’s a familiar story, told straight and without the dynamics or soul to make it stick.

Nick Ciccone is Dunstan and looks made for the part. He’s a competent performer but, unfortunately, his performance stays pretty close to the middle of the road. He doesn’t fully inhabit the misery Dunstan should be living through; loud wails and gesticulations alone are not enough to be really convincing. His cartoonishly ghoulish devil impersonation was creepy and enjoyable, though.

The script also stays in the middle of the same road. It’s billed as a dramedy, but it’s neither particularly funny nor dramatic.

The humorous observations peppered throughout the script are mostly lost, at least on me and the small audience I saw it with, and don’t benefit from the context of the play. There are some chuckles here and there, but not many.

Sadly, the drama is too overwrought and the plot too predictable to be compelling especially in the absence of something to tickle the funny bone.

The most fun part of the show is how it weaves in real-world pop culture references in a natural seeming way. It does well at bringing to life the story of rock and roll through the late ’70s and ’80s. As a whole, though, it feels like a play that doesn’t know what it wants to be, tries out a number of cliches along the way, a few jokes and failed attempts at pathos, and ends up just where you thought it would. —Damon Muma

The Sparrow and the Mouse: Creating the Music of Edith Piaf

Shedding light on Piaf’s shadow

Melanie Gall has a great voice and an interesting story to tell. She’s made a smart choice to present Edith Piaf’s life from the perspective of her half-sister Momone, allowing her to perform the songs in her own voice rather than try to emulate Piaf’s distinctive style. A trained opera singer (and grad of UWO), she easily fills the Wolf Performance Hall with many of Piaf’s signature songs and some of her less-well-known work.

The difficult lives of the half-sisters seem to have inhabited the technical aspects of Gall’s production—tonight one of her voiceovers was cut short by a stuttering CD player, which also eliminated the instrumental track of her second-last song—but she handled the glitches well and got enthusiastic applause when she decided to sing a cappella. Hopefully those will finally be solved for her last three performances; the onstage part of the show is flawless. —Peter Janes

Suicide(s) in Vegas

Don’t let a late start keep you from this one

Suicide(s) in Vegas was part of last week’s Montreal Fringe festival, which means it missed the opening weekend of London’s festival. It may go under the recommendation radar as a result, which would be a real shame for such good performances.

Self-help maven Lydia, whose “don’t live, survive” spiel comes across as only slightly creepier than Tom Cruise’s “tame her” seminars in the movie Magnolia, and toll-booth operator Jane, stuck in a crummy job in a thankless life, couldn’t be more different. Amber Green conveys Jane’s loneliness and low self esteem without invoking pity, and Elinza Pretorius maintains the smarmy charm necessary for her role while adding depth to what could be a one-note character. Their shared revelatory experiences in the casinos and rooftops of Las Vegas are played perfectly, and make up for a slightly pat (yet unpredictable) conclusion. —Peter Janes

Suspiciously Statuesque

One you shouldn’t miss

As someone who isn’t a huge fan of musical theatre and has little interest (or experience) with cabaret I was admittedly a bit nervous about seeing this play. About five minutes into the show, those concerns were quashed by what has been the most enjoyable Fringe performance I’ve seen thus far. In short, this hilarious, sharp and witty show is packed full of awesome and you should see it before it’s too late.

Now that that’s out of the way, I shall commence the gushing.

McGeoch as playwright has compiled a compelling interactive experience that feels more real than fiction. A flirty and friendly Didi Panache actively engages the audience, but not in a corny participation way. Through casual conversation, and taking time to introduce herself to everyone in the audience one by one, it was impossible to not be enchanted by this character and fall headlong into the story unwrapping before you. This attempt to blur the lines between real and fake has the potential to be done so, so horribly wrong but Panache absolutely nails it here, leaving you with a play that feels completely unscripted, natural, and engaging.

The music is fantastic, with a wide swath of songs Panache has “always wanted to sing”, and she certainly can sing them. Likewise the movement, acting and lighting are absolutely spot on. The humour, which might be a bit too aggressive/crude for some, acts as biting social criticism of our own biases and bigotry which I found to leave me feeling a bit uncomfortable as I snickered quietly to myself (which was the point).

If you’re a fan of cabaret or musical theatre, you must see this play. If you enjoyed The Screw You Revue last year, you’ve got to check this out. If you’re not a big fan of cabaret or musical theatre, like me, this might just be the time to throw caution to the wind and try this one on for size.

Who knows, maybe you’ll be as thoroughly impressed as I was. —Jeffrey Preston

’33, a kabarett

Masterful piece of work

Plays focusing on Germany at the rise of Hitler are a risky business, as there’s simply such a massive amount of material based on this terrible time in history. The result of this glut is a slew of performances that fall to clichés and stereotypes, using tired old tropes to play out a horror we can’t (and shouldn’t) stop telling ourselves.

But this cabaret is not one of those shows.

Duthie delivers a stellar performance in this show that focuses on the last remaining performer from a cabaret deemed “perverse” by the ruling party. This show honestly has something for everyone, from songs crooned masterfully to raunchy humour and sharp commentary. Particularly haunting (and effective) is Duthie’s use of props, like shoes and wigs, to represent those who have been purged before him—a stunning allusion to holocaust museums the world over.

In the end, I cannot stress enough how strong Duthie is in this masterfully constructed play—he brings the perfect amount of energy and emotion to the scenes to portray a broken and scared man, grown weary in a nation gone mad. —Jeffrey Preston

Three Seconds to Live

Interesting show!

From the start playwright/actor Shawn Erker’s broad smile and precise diction commands the audience’s attention as he leads us through the somewhat quirky tale of Christian’s upbringing.

He’s a solid, charismatic performer and there is enough of interest in the script to keep the audience engaged and entertained. It also ties itself together with a mostly satisfying pay-off. Where the show falls a bit short is in the script’s overly cartoonish characterization of some of the characters, and the formula of its delivery. Many of the anecdotes are phrased in the same way I’ve heard countless similar recounts go, which keeps it from feeling totally natural.

There is some really great physicality with the simple but effective set (I’d have loved to see even more). I wasn’t convinced the sound effects and voiceovers were necessary (Erker might have created the situations just by himself to greater effect). The script itself is a little patchy, occasionally spending more time than necessary with an idea, and at times unfocused. There are enough good moments and ideas, though, to make it worth checking out. —Damon Muma

Underbelly

And now for something completely different

For fans of Jayson McDonald’s usual one-man comedies: you are in for a completely different beast in Underbelly. While it did have funny moments, Underbelly is more a cerebral endeavor…basically, a Hunter S. Thompson/William S. Burroughs mashup full of drug-induced fantasies and critical social commentary.

Aside from another great performance by McDonald, this show also featured a tremendous use of lighting and sound/music to construct a frantic and engaging environment that really helps draw the audience into the fantasies of the protagonist. I cannot stress enough the polished effects used to bring this show alive—they were great.

Ultimately, McDonald has done a commendable job of stepping outside his typical genre and, while different, you shouldn’t let that scare you away or you will be missing out on something really intriguing. —Jeffrey Preston

A Wild Play

First off, yeah: see this play. It’s different from your usual London Fringe piece, but about a thousand times more polished than anything else you’ll see that could get billed as “different”. The direction and the use of movement were fantastic, the timing was incredibly tight, and the players’ energy never faltered despite what I imagine would be extremely exhausting performances. Odd Act is an obviously talented group, and deserve your support based on enthusiasm and verve alone.

That being said, A Wild Play is not for everyone. It was dauntingly academic: at times, the dialogue seemed wordy for wordiness’s own sake, and the abstract/theoretical stuff had moments of tiring pretension. The piece also takes some time to pick up steam, as for the first little while it seemed, conceptually, a little stale… it wasn’t until we were past the halfway point that I found myself actually absorbed in the story and the ideas behind it.

Once I got to that point, though, I did really appreciate A Wild Play, and strongly recommend it to anyone who values passionately delivered and impressively polished philosophical theatre. —Clara Madrenas


Many of the reviewers posted items during the week as well; they’re presented below.

Chaotica

Chaotica was awesome. Bartelse’s performance was lively and lovable. It’s a funny and touching script that’s so engaging that you won’t want it to end… there really is something for everyone in it: song, dance, humour, introspection, etc… The music and sound design were original and effective, not to mention perfectly timed. The set and props deserve special mention for their creative simplicity and excellent use of colour. The audience participation was some of the best I’ve seen—it was designed so that participants would be self-selecting, and Bartelse read the audience very well so that no one was made uncomfortable or asked to do something against their will—on top of being hilarious and fun.

The only complaint one might have with the show is that it has some vaguely off-colour moments (“Gay? What’s next, bestiality?” comes to mind, as does a song about self-mutilation that isn’t firmly in the poor-taste camp but…it’s…hovering around there) that might be considered offensive.

If you don’t mind that, get your tickets as early as you can, because the houses seem to be bigger for this one (and for good reason). —Clara Madrenas

Mysteries of the Unexplained

A mystery, all right

Mr. Eman performs a couple of good magic tricks, including a nice reveal involving paper and scissors.

Unfortunately the rest of the hour-long show is an unexplained mystery of its own.

With a presentation style that’s so low-key it’s subterranean, mind-reading tricks whose results definitively disprove the existence of ESP, carnival-style music that’s out of place at best, and stories that are referenced more than told, the production underwhelms. Mr. Eman seems genuinely uncomfortable on stage; at one point he passed the book that apparently forms the core of his production to an audience member, saying something to the effect of “flip through and see if you can find something interesting”.

I have no doubt that Mr. Eman (the pun is intentional, and is the only way he’s credited) is a competent magician, and would like to see him somewhere he can play to that strength. With a well-rehearsed script matched to a topic he’s got some—any!—passion for, I think he’d have something. —Peter Janes

R.I.S.K.

Take the risk

“Take a risk,” the Fringe program says. And that’s all. How can you resist that pitch?

Michael Davidson’s show is unlike any other I’ve seen, in this or previous festivals. It’s rapid-fire and thought-provoking, and funny-ha-ha and funny-weird. It’s got unforced audience participation that encourages acts of play and daring, and rewards openness in smart and unexpected ways. There isn’t a story per se, but neither is it a series of non sequiturs. There’s good reason to believe that the show you see may not be the one your neighbour does.

And it’s just about impossible to review traditionally, as Davidson and onstage cohort Brendan Campbell conform to, stretch and entirely throw out theatrical conventions.

In short, it’s very Fringe.

Take a risk. —Peter Janes

The Screw You Revue: One Night Only!

Night of a thousand quips

Wayburn’s eyebrow wasn’t the only wayward element of tonight’s 50-50 Fringe fundraiser, but it made the show even more endearing to an audience filled with a lot of Screw You Revue virgins and many more who knew the correct response to “my wife Winifred”. People rightly gush about the hilariously offensive nature of the show, but just between us chickens, I think the biggest reason for their popularity is that the Screw You duo—on stage, in real life, and in the frequent spaces during the Revue where the two overlap—are obviously, overwhelmingly, full of heart. They’re a couple of the classiest folks around.

And if you disagree, screw you! —Peter Janes

6 Guitars

Six strings and the truth

Some early buzz from Orlando Fringe about Chase Padgett’s 6 Guitars was right: “Definitely check that one out.”

The show’s conceit is a series of interview vignettes with six guitar players, each a proponent of one of the instrument’s distinctive styles: classical, metal, jazz, folk, country, and of course blues. When Tyrone Gibbons, the 87-year-old blues guitarist, ambles into the theatre, you know Padgett’s got gifts for mimicry and comedy; when Padgett-as-Gibbons plays, though, it’s like the Fanshawe theatre has moved to the Mississippi delta.

The other five characters are similarly well-defined. Each is introduced as a stereotype—the twenty-year-old metalhead who lives with his mother and can’t remember his band’s name, the smooth-as-silk hipster doofus jazz guitarist, the good-ol’-boy country singer—but they all love their music and know their way around the instrument. Co-writers Padgett and Jay Hopkins do a great job of fleshing them out so that, by the end, they’re all real people that aren’t any more quirky than any other group of enthusiasts.

Padgett excels at playing the audience, too. A family in the front row bore the brunt of his characters’ good-natured ribbing, and provided one of the night’s best moments; when the wise Gibbons opined that “the older I get the smarter my mama is”, he couldn’t help but direct a “you remember that, young fella” to their young son—who then gave Padgett a Buble-style surprise when he nailed the lyrics to Blowin’ in the Wind.

The show’s final medley, shared between all six characters, is a perfect summary of Padgett’s musical abilities, and demonstrates how music truly is universal, regardless of the style of any particular player. —Peter Janes

Underbelly

Underbelly overwhelming

Holy****wowcrazybrilliantamazing. —Laurie Bursch

Underbelly

Deliciously twisted and kinda beautiful

Jayson McDonald as Willy S. Burroughs in an homage to the Beat generation. The play is a series of brief, interconnected scenes poems musings trips dreams…

I loved this show. It is interesting to see McDonald going somewhere different from his usual schticky place. For brief moments he slides back into familiar territory, and it is always funny, but I wonder if it was intentional… is he spending the whole show fighting being that lethargic sardonic wit he’s known for? Or are these few slips intentional? As far as the beat poetry, the lines aren’t always delivered with precise rhythm (for that check out Skydiving in Suburbia) but it doesn’t matter too much because the language is a joy to listen to and the places we are taken to (in our minds!) are wonderful to imagine.

Underbelly is a great mix of darkness, apathy, surrealism, commentary and dry wit. I have only a passing familiarity with Burroughs’ work. Not enough to know exactly how the delicious weirdness on stage relates specifically to it, whether each episode is adapted or original or some hodgepodge of both. No matter, the things we get to experience make my brain happy. There are some pretty powerful and inspired moments and images.

I loved living in that strange world for an hour. I’d also love to know who did the sound design, because it was utterly incredible. [Sound design is by Jayson McDonald. –ed.]—Damon Muma

One Comment on “Opening weekend Fringe reviews, 2011 edition”

  1. [...] to see me, but the official Theatre In London review has been re-homed and can be found by either clicking here (although all have been stripped of their star ratings), or clicking “Press” at the top [...]