Edinburgh Festival Fringe reviews: August Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned | Learning to Fly | Dreamliner | Brain Hemingway | Alan Turing: A Musical Biography | Leaves on the Line

An autobiographical play from the late August Wilson, a heartwarming reflection on a rocky adolescence and a tender tribute to Alan Turing all feature in our latest round-up of Fringe theatre and musicals. Reviews by Susan Mansfield, Sally Stott, David Pollock and Fiona Shepherd

August Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned ****

Assembly Rooms (Venue 20), until 28 August (not 22)

Two years before his death in 2005, playwright August Wilson – the multi-award-winning chronicler of black American experience – developed an autobiographical one-man play which he planned to perform himself. Now taken on by various experienced Wilson interpreters, it makes its UK and European premiere at the Fringe starring Lester Purry, a long-time actor in Wilson’s plays.

Lester Purry in August Wilson's How I Learned What I LearnedLester Purry in August Wilson's How I Learned What I Learned
Lester Purry in August Wilson's How I Learned What I Learned

How I Learned What I Learned transports us to the Hill District, the poor black neighbourhood in Pittsburgh in which Wilson grew up, and which would become the world of his Century Cycle plays. Here, however, he conjures it in a different way, describing the black writers and artists who were his friends and mentors and the vivid place they inhabited. One particularly memorable description is of the day John Coltrane came to play at the Crawford Grill and 200 people stood outside to hear the music.

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Wilson dropped out of school at 15 and got most of his education at the public library. As a young man, he ducked and dived through dead-end jobs, spent three days in jail for rent nonpayment, fell in love with a married woman and had to run away when her husband turned up with a gun. He was alert to any whisper of inequality, and not afraid to challenge it.

The play has a loose, meandering structure, relying on the skills of the storyteller to hold it together, which Purry deftly does. However, it does not mention Wilson’s plays, or the specific steps on the journey which took him from the tough streets of Pittsburgh to being a Pulitzer-winning playwright. As a string of personal anecdotes, it feels too long and a little self-satisfied in tone. Susan Mansfield

Learning to Fly ****

Summerhall (Venue 26), until 28 August (not 22)

The one-person storytelling show enjoyed a moment on the Fringe a few year ago. James Rowland was one of the leading proponents, beginning with 2016’s Team Viking, about how he and his friends promised to arrange a Viking funeral for one of their number who was dying of cancer. Now one of just a handful of performers still making confessional story shows, Rowland does it superbly well.

Learning to Fly goes back to his own adolescence. Troubled by illness (he never explains what) and often bedridden, he had a somewhat lonely existence with a “stay-at-home mum and a stay-away dad”. This, however, is the story of how he got to know Anne, the gruff old lady who lived in the big spooky house next to the park. Though neither relished the encounter at first, an incident with a blocked toilet broke the ice and they soon became fast friends. But Rowland was still a kid and, when he arrived at the abrupt realisation that Anne was unhappy, he hit on what seemed, at the time, to be a brilliant solution. If only he could just befriend the school drug dealer…

Rowland is a natural storyteller, keeping his audience enthralled through every beat and digression, his only props a portable record player and an LP of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. There is some beautiful descriptive writing here, and his observations are capable of being very funny, disarmingly honest and surprisingly tender. His stories are pitched at the right level: odd enough to be interesting, ordinary enough that we start to see bits of ourselves in them. This is a pleasant, inoffensive and heartwarming way to spend an hour on the Fringe. While one does wonder whether or not it is all true, one quickly concludes that it really doesn’t much matter. Susan Mansfield

Dreamliner **

C ARTS | C venues | C place (Venue 19), until 21 August

A polished ensemble of young actors with impressive levels of conviction keep this elusive, part-devised conspiracy story going, which is loosely strung around an investigation into a mysterious incident on a plane. Are the passengers affected by a loss of oxygen, or is something stranger going on? The group do a great job with a script that feels primarily designed to give each of their eccentric characters an intriguing monologue, rather than sufficiently develop the bigger story. Quite why there’s an evangelical Christian espousing the evils of cake to me while claiming I’m a Victoria sponge, I don’t know – but she’s doing it very well. Sally Stott

Brain Hemingway **

Greenside @ Infirmary Street (Venue 236), until 20 August

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“To write you must sit at a typewriter,” is the not-especially-helpful advice that the Ernest Hemingway in her head gives Erin Murray Quinlan as she tries to create this, the play we're watching. An amusing pastiche of authoritarian male writing “experts”, which develops into a meta-theatrical analysis of the paralysing effects of self-doubt, the story sadly runs out of places to go, despite the solid sitcom-ready performances from the two cast members. A couple of superb musical numbers inject energy at the end and the piece is refreshingly difficult to pin down. But the duo’s shift from a toxic power dynamic to a kooky love-hate friendship feels in need of more clarity. Sally Stott

Alan Turing: A Musical Biography ***

Paradise in the Vault (Venue 29), until 20 August

For those who have seen the 2014 biopic The Imitation Game, the life details of one of history’s greatest Britons, Alan Turing, will come as no surprise. Mathematician, co-breaker of the Nazi’s Enigma code during World War II and the father of research into modern computing and artificial intelligence, he was infamously charged with involvement in illegal homosexual acts in 1952, when all such acts were illegal. He was sentenced to a hormone treatment that has been described as “chemical castration” and soon after died by suspected suicide. Written by music teachers Joel Goodman and Jan Osborne, the songs in this musical arrangement of Turing’s life story are shot through with a real tenderness, which is most highly emphasised in those which deal with his necessarily repressed sexuality. This manifests, for example, in his young romance with Christopher Morcom, who died of tuberculosis aged 18, or in a song which points out that “silence is a saviour” both in wartime operations and in protecting his private life. Using Turing’s own recorded words throughout, with a fictional female biographer introducing them, the occasional density of the text is offset by two professional and very beautiful vocal performances from Joe Bishop and Zara Cooke. David Pollock

Leaves on the Line **

theSpace @ Surgeons Hall (Venue 53), until 20 August

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JK Rowling was famously inspired to use King’s Cross station as a key location in the Harry Potter novels because her parents met on a train from King’s Cross to Scotland. This new musical by Durham University Light Opera Group chronicles a series of encounters on the same train line with import for the characters – a schoolboy on the run, an aspiring writer, an unemployed actress, a horny hen party animal and the nice but dim conductor – but with no strong narrative to justify the hard work put in by the cast. Fiona Shepherd