Scotsman critics’ choice: The best of Edinburgh’s Christmas programme

Puddles Pity Party

Puddles Pity Party

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TRYING to decide which shows to see in this year’s Edinburgh’s Christmas programme? Here’s what our critics have said about some of the highlights

CIRCA: BEYOND | Rating: ****

Stick Man. Picture: Lesley Martin

Stick Man. Picture: Lesley Martin

Seen at: Underbelly Bristo Square, Edinburgh, August 2014

CIRCUS, by its very nature, is anarchic – ripping through the boundaries of conventional theatre, pushing bodies to their physical extreme, and engaging with audiences in ways few other artforms can. Australia’s Circa take that to a new level, blending their phenomenal skills with a collective free spirit that just won’t be tamed. The show’s title is explained at the off. We are going, they tell us, beyond the line between human and animal, between sanity and insanity.

Which all sounds rather serious, until the cast appear wearing giant bunny heads (later replaced by a camel head and full teddy bear suit) and the mayhem begins.

Seven performers, each strikingly individual yet very much part of a team, let rip for an hour with the kind of movement the average human can only wonder at. As always, Circa are the first word in egalitarian acrobatics, with men and women taking an equal share of the lifting and carrying.

Austentatious: An Improvised Jane Austen Novel. Picture: Jane Barlow

Austentatious: An Improvised Jane Austen Novel. Picture: Jane Barlow

Rowan Heydon-White gets the ball rolling, standing rock solid as two men climb on to her shoulders to create a triple tower. Later, her hands and hips plays a similar role. Such balances are the bread and butter of most circus troupes, but here they take on a special quality; partly because of the remarkable female strength on display, but mainly because they just make it look so darn easy.

Alongside the show of muscle-straining bravado, come moments of beauty. In particular Billie Wilson-Coffey on the silks. Who would have thought hearing Camille O’Sullivan sing The Ship Song could get any more beautiful – until you see Wilson-Coffey slip, slide and occasionally plummet her way up and down the cloth and you realise it can.

The men, of course, have much to offer too. On the Chinese Pole, on the trapeze, and on each other, they demonstrate the same inch-perfect technique borne out of endless repetition and rehearsal – laced with a little unhinged madness.

After last year’s equally brilliant Wunderkammer, it would seem watching Circa has become my new favourite Fringe pastime. KELLY APTER

STICK MAN | Rating: ***

Seen at: Spiegeltent, St Andrews Square, Edinburgh, December 2014

IT’S one of the most beloved of 21st century children’s stories, and – so they say – the only story by the great Julia Donaldson to feature Christmas as part of the narrative. So it’s not surprising that Scamp Theatre’s 50-minute stage version of Stick Man, playing at St Andrews Square, makes a gorgeous seasonal show for younger children, albeit one that takes a little bit of time to find its narrative rhythm, and its audience-participation mojo.

The story is the gloriously simple one of a little stick man who lives in the family tree with his stick lady wife and stick children three (yes, there’s plenty of rhyme), but who goes out for a run one day, and finds himself caught up in a series of mishaps and adventures that take him away from home for months, until it’s almost Christmas. Using live music by cast member Gordon Cooper, a simple but ingenious set, and some strikingly sharp choreography, the three-strong company tell the story in fine, lucid style, although the movement often seems stronger than the script. And by the end, the children in the audience are wholly caught up in the simple, heartfelt dynamic of a tale which contains a quietly powerful message about not judging only by appearances; and remembering that the most ordinary-looking fragment of creation can have a heart, and a love, and a home to which he or she longs to return, at Christmas, or any other time of year. JOYCE MCMILLAN

PUDDLES PITY PARTY | Rating: ****

Seen at: Assembly George Square Gardens, Edinburgh, August 2015

YOU might have seen Puddles on YouTube: he’s the “sad clown with the golden voice” who went viral with a disarmingly sonorous cover version of Lorde’s hit Royals. If you aren’t familiar, he’s a dolorous, outsized Pierrot type who sings but doesn’t speak, his white face striped with red and a frayed gold tin-can crown perched on his bald head. Puddles Pity Party is his Fringe debut, and it’s an utter treat, clearly demonstrating that his talents extend beyond that remarkable voice.

The show is a tremendous vocal showcase. Puddles has a room-filling Rat Pack croon with undertones of yearning and frustration that befit his antsy stage presence. All suppressed nervous energy, he’s awkward but never hostile, forever scratching, sniffing and worrying at his pompoms. The set list emphasises loneliness and abjection, ranging from Lorde (natch) and Sia to Tom Jones and Abba, all delivered with sincerity even as he scans the crowd for happy couples to resent. There’s also strong use of cleverly edited video material throughout, from archive footage of lame parties and public information films to beautiful vintage animation and a nutso tribute to Kevin Costner. (There’s also rather too much material showing Puddles himself.)

But for a sad occasion, boy, is it fun. The show begins with Puddles blankly shaking each audience member’s hand on the way in, while shovelling gum into his mouth at a rate of knots. It’s the first of many bits of direct engagement: barely five minutes goes by without someone being dragged on stage to help get this party started. Geared around specific tasks, this participatory gambit is occasionally gimmicky and inevitably hit-and-miss, but plainly generous of spirit, and when it works it absolutely soars.

Overall, the show doesn’t add up to more than the sum of its parts – but when the parts are this much fun, who’s complaining? BEN WALTERS

SH*T-FACED SHAKESPEARE: A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM | Rating: ****

Seen at: C Venues, Edinburgh, August 2012

SHAKESPEARE purists will no doubt turn up their noses at the thought of this show – a slimmed-down version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed by four entirely sober actors and one exceedingly drunk one. But the spoilsports should consider this: Shakespeare intended his play to be a comedy, and I doubt it has ever made an audience laugh as long or as loud as it does here, while being battered to within an inch of its life by the Tax Deductible Theatre Company.

To mitigate against liver cirrhosis, pancreatitis and other nasties associated with regular binge drinking, the cast members take it in turns to get hammered, and there are two different casts, appearing on alternate nights. For the performance I saw, Saul Marron, playing Demetrius, was the inebriated one, consuming most of a bottle of vodka before the show and then being forced to down several pints of lager on top of that by people in the front row, who were invited to bang gongs or blow whistles when they thought he might be in danger of sobering up.

Marron proved an extremely entertaining drunk, hitting on audience members and cast members alike, belching with impeccable comic timing and displaying boundless enthusiasm for the music of Shabba Ranks and Inner Circle.

He was at his funniest, however, when he stopped goofing around and tried to deliver his lines properly, inadvertently mangling some of the Bard’s best writing while maintaining a look of steely concentration. On one occasion he actually seemed to be on the verge of getting through a complete exchange with Helena (the long-suffering Sarah-Louise Porteous) without corpsing, slurring his words or forgetting his lines, only to be interrupted at the last minute by the man with the gong.

“No!” he shouted, “that wush the firsht bloody-ruddy thing I’ve got out properly all night!”

“Exactly,” said the man with the gong. “Now drink.” ROGER COX

AUSTENTATIOUS: AN IMPROVISED JANE AUSTEN NOVEL | Rating: ****

Seen at: Laughing Horse @ The Counting House, Edinburgh, August 2012

WHO would have thought it? People are queuing round the block at the Free Festival for an afternoon improv show based on the novels of Jane Austen. Austentatious, in which a supersmart and terrifically funny group of actors and comics spirit up a “lost” Austen work with a title picked at random from a suggestion from the audience has become a runaway hit.

Today’s reconstructed classic – Sense and Incestibility – could have become a tasteless affair. But in the hands of Cariad Lloyd, Rachel Parris, Andrew Murray, Graham Dickson, Amy Cooke Hodgson and Joseph Morpurgo it becomes a delightfully absurd fable.

The Austen troupe, a mixture of comics and actors who have been working together for around a year, are brilliant at mimicking the speech patterns of Austen’s characters – avoiding anachronisms and recreating her wry and precise style of observation. They have some impressive improv tricks – such as appearing to read aloud together and always being sure to have someone around to catch a character when they are about to swoon.

It is so clever it is difficult to work out exactly how they do it. But this really is a story which is being woven together on the spot. Running gags and callbacks develop and grow and the players have tremendous fun setting each other improv challenges, such as asking: “What was that song…?” or “What was that joke…?”

In today’s improvised novel the overly close Lovelock family are thrown into disarray by a clash with their neighbour Karl Pilkington – a man obsessed with Christmas – who is also overly close to his own sister. There are misunderstandings, family secrets, a terrible carriage accident and lots of emotional moments. Miraculously the whole tangled mess is brought to an uplifting and happy ending.

It is a wonderful show – joyful, creative and a true homage to a novelist who was one of the greatest female humorists who ever lived. www.edinburghschristmas.com

• For full details of this year’s Edinburgh’s Christmas programme, visit www.edinburghschristmas.com

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