Edinburgh Festival Fringe reviews: Boom | Caligari | Heroin to Hero | Danielle Walker: Nostalgia | Paul Currie | Bamboozled | The Smeds and the Smoos | The Suitcase | S-ex-iety | Two's Company | Atsuko Okatsuka: The Intruder
A crammed circus show with a little bit of everything thrown in kicks off a bumper crop of reviews that demonstrate the creative and artistic breadth of the Fringe. Words by Kelly Apter, Rory Ford, David Pollock, Jay Richardson and Kate Copstick
Underbelly Bristo Square (Venue 302), until 28 August (not 15, 22)
Seeing Boom is the theatrical equivalent of being on your phone, laptop, watching TV and having a conversation – all at the same time. Part celebration of youth, part social commentary, part circus show, so much happens at once, the acts have little room to breathe. Performed by Cirk La Putyka from the Czech Republic and members of Kyiv Municipal Academy of Variety and Circus Art, there’s a lot of talent on the stage. Aerial artists, hand balancers, gymnasts, jugglers, dancers... they are all here and eager to express themselves.
The Ukrainians speak briefly about the fear that accompanied the start of war, the Czechs tell us what makes them happy. It’s all very connective and, of course, it’s wonderful that these bright young people have a platform to share their skills and dreams. But there is a reason that every other circus show demonstrates one skill at a time, and it’s not from fear that audiences cannot take in too much at once. We can. But if someone is demonstrating their strength on the Chinese pole, or elegance on an aerial swing, let’s respect that and keep the spotlight on them – not crowd the stage and steal their thunder. Kelly Apter
Underbelly, Cowgate (Venue 61), until 28 August (not 15)
Winner of this year’s Untapped Award for new theatre, this is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Robert Wiene’s 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. With its painted-on shadows and improbably angled sets, Wiene’s silent classic kickstarted the German Expressionist movement and continues to be an influence even a century later in the most unlikely places: Tim Burton’s Batman Returns is practically a love letter to Caligari.
ChewBoy Productions presentation is a bit more serious but it also wants you to draw parallels between their malevolent hypnotist and the control our political leaders have over us. Presented much like a Weimar-style cabaret, five actor-musicians present their version of the tale of the demented doctor and his murderous somnambulist, Cesare. The music and songs are more modern cabaret than pastiche and are all in service of the story. Rather than mimic the stark black-and-white of the original this is expressionism with moments of full, glorious colour. The production pulls off a series of striking effects: the moment when the figure of Cesare gradually emerges from the darkness as if he were made from it is a chilling highlight.
Caligari did not predict Hitler but the story came from the same place: two German pacifists left deeply distrustful of authority after their experience in the military during the war. That is echoed here as the performers start to argue among themselves about how best to present the story and even if they should. Why do we keep creating Caligari and giving him power over us? The characters do not exist outside of the story and the supporting players are fated to die repeatedly. We need the mad hypnotist because we want to be told what to do – and so we reboot Caligari again and again. Rory Ford
Heroin to Hero ****
Army @ the Fringe (Venue 358), until 28 August (not 8, 15, 22)
The only real misstep in actor and playwright Tony McGeever’s adaptation of Edinburgh man Paul Boggie’s memoir of his drug addiction comes right at the beginning. Boggie’s troubles with heroin started at the tail end of Edinburgh’s years of “drug capital of Europe” infamy, when the former fierce abstainer tried smoking it in a car parked up in a housing estate with friends. He went on to lose seven years of his life.
The first lines of the play declare it to be not just something different from other drug tales which might be heard on the Fringe – railing against them on class-based terms, as well as their glamour and flippancy – but also citing the post-Trainspotting approach to the genre. Yet inventively stylised visual touches here remind of the film, like the towers of flashing video screens and the way McGeever as Boggie literally sinks into the sofa and disappears.
The story, meanwhile, is a good companion piece to Irvine Welsh’s book, both bleak and human all at once. Where it differs is in where Boggie went after his recovery, which McGeever poignantly recounts was partly inspired by sitting in a drug den one day and noticing the eight-year-old boy – the same age as Boggie’s daughter by his estranged wife at this point – sitting in the corner. Although Boggie actually relapsed 13 times, only quitting when a course run by the homelessness charity Cyrenians helped change his mindset.
This is where the choice of venue for the show comes in, as Boggie turned his life around by joining the Army and becoming a guardsman at Buckingham Palace. McGeever engages throughout, not least in describing a fleeting moment of human connection in the briefest nod from the Queen, although Boggie’s subsequent injury in Afghanistan and second recovery from painkiller addiction feels it could have been built up more. The play offers no solution to Scotland’s drug crisis beyond personal fortitude and responsibility, but that’s a good claim on uniqueness. David Pollock
Danielle Walker: Nostalgia ***
Assembly George Square Studios (Studio Four) (Venue 17), until 28 August (not 15)
Danielle Walker arguably had one of the best upbringings for a comedian, nurtured by a loving family in isolated rural Australia. It was only when she switched to city life and became a stand-up that she realised how eccentric they were. And what a rich repository of anecdotes she is sitting on. At no little expense, Ward has recreated some of the trappings of her family home onstage. This effort to capture her grandfather’s gnomic wisdom through technology and knick-knack tat is indicative of a comic who hails the pensioner as her “muse” and seeks to find and express the sublime in the trashy. Interviewing her mother about the crazy circumstances they’ve come to register as normal on home video from the 1970s onward is another treasure trove for the artistically inclined Walker, who instinctively seeks to render their passions and experiences in self-made mementoes, the love expressed in these endeavours undiminished when they hilariously fail. As the title suggests, Nostalgia is a warm embrace of a show, if a little slow. Walker is also a likeable performer, consistently funny in her incredulity about the weirdness in her genes, while extolling the nourishing virtues of keeping those close to you close. Jay Richardson
Paul Currie: The Chorus of Ghosts in My Skull Keep Telling Me to Take a Shit in the Fruit Salad ***
Just the Tonic at the Caves (Venue 88), until 28 August (not 15, 24)
There is a huge quandary about reviewing this hour, in that both show and performer are so much more focused, centred and technically impressive than Paul Currie has ever been. We get chunks of very personal stand up, a coming out story and several minutes of chanting “gender is a construct”. And cheer. Which feels a little smug. I miss Currie’s usual manic mess (although the cornflakes assuaged that need to some extent), and, much more, I miss the sense of jeopardy.
This is a show that offers an incredible performing treasure trove of imaginative physical comedy, fun, ridiculous props and cleverly honed audience participation points. But it feels unsettlingly safe. It has Panda Hands, Therapy Puppets and Paul's Black Dog of Depression, which are all magical, quintessential Currie comedy. He demonstrates his eternal ability to find the most unexpectedly hilarious potential of items such as sliced bread, and sellotape. So it seems churlish to complain about the lack of something so intangible as the “feel” of the show. But it is the difference between finding your new best friend and falling in love. Kate Copstick
French Institute (venue 168), until 17 August
The snacks are out, the hosts are ready – now all they need are some party guests. That’s the central premise in Bamboozled, a new piece of dance, live music and visuals by creative duo Constant Vigier and Sonia Killmann. But after the first couple of minutes, and a few anxious stares at the door, this scenario drifts away and the show feels less like a shared endeavour and more like two artists doing their own thing.
As a former dancer with Scottish Ballet, it goes without saying that Vigier is a joy to watch. He graces the stage – and screen – with a combination of elegance, urgency and fun, never letting go of his intent. Likewise, Killmann is a talented musician, switching between piano, saxophone and digital audio visuals. The way Vigier is depicted on screen, with multiple versions of himself dancing together, and parts of his body cut away to focus our attention, is engaging up to a point. But again, it can be hard to grasp how this fits into the overall story. So while this is aesthetically and aurally pleasing when there is no discernible sense of what our “hosts” are feeling, it is hard to engage emotionally. Kelly Apter
The Smeds and the Smoos ****
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33), until 21 August (not 17)
There are few Fringe shows aimed at pre-school and early primary years children more reliable than the Tall Stories company’s adaptations of the work of The Gruffalo’s creators, writer Julia Donaldson and illustrator Axel Scheffler. The Smeds and the Smoos, based on the duo’s 2019 book, is a new addition to Tall Stories’s onstage canon, and one of the most successful efforts yet.
The Smeds are a race of red-skinned alien creatures and the Smoos are their blue-skinned neighbours, and an ongoing feud between them means they have nothing to do with one another. In fact, this mutual dislike seems grounded in an irreparable distrust of one another’s differences, right down to the fact Smeds sleep in beds (Donaldson’s rhyming style is incorporated into the extended text) and Smoos sleep in holes. Then one day Smed girl Janet (Felicia Akin-Tayo) and Smoo boy Bill (Dan Armstrong) meet in the woods and become friends.
When Grandfather Smed (Tim Hibberd) and Grandmother Smoo (Louise Mai Newberry) find out about this, they forbid the pair from having contact – so the younger pair steal a rocket and escape to the stars. The older generation must set out on a year-long journey to find them, encountering all kinds of strange alien lifeforms along the way, including the green, tickling-armed Vums, the pantomime horse-style Lurgle and the Gruffalo-headed Grimbles.
No wheels were reinvented during the making of this play, but Barney George’s set and Yvonne Stone’s alien puppets are evocative and very good quality, while director Toby Mitchell nails the perfect tone. There are catchy songs, good gags for younger kids and some interactive moments of call-and-response and supersoaker action, while the underlying theme about learning to tolerate the differences and diversity of others is made clearly and compassionately. David Pollock
The Suitcase ***
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33), until 21 August (not 17)
A man named Toby is standing onstage with a very large trunk-sized suitcase. What can be inside, he asks of the younger members of his audience? They call out in response with their own thoughtful, enthusiastic, probably highly unrealistic answers. He explains by telling them a story of an odd little green-skinned puppet stranger, who goes on a journey with a similar suitcase of his own, meeting a welcoming Bird and Rabbit and their suspicious friend the Fox in a new land. They ask what’s in his suitcase, and when he tells them it’s a chair next to a villa from which you can see the sea, the untrusting Fox is determined to get into the case and find out how that can be.
Toby Mitchell’s one-person adaptation of the illustrated book by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros is a simple but effective piece of storytelling and puppetry, with lots of interaction with the young children in the audience to make them feel as though they’re involved in the story. At its heart there is a bittersweet but upbeat message about tolerance and welcome, especially of those who are far from home with very little. Mitchell balances the tone just right to make that point clearly without any need to press it home. David Pollock
French Institute (Venue 168), until 27 August (not 15, 23)
There's a likeable slick sheen – and a nice range of accents – in this production by Purple Soup Crew, an international company from Luxembourg. Missy is wracked by guilt after a (clothed) walk-on part in a porn film but her flatmate Babe encourages a more liberal attitude while Honey is driven to research the industry. This may not really hang together successfully but there are some enjoyable aspects and a strong cast. But amid effective vignettes about sex robots and some very impressive choral versions of explicit pop lyrics the scattershot approach and muted ending suggest this show isn’t quite there yet. Rory Ford
Two's Company ***
Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose (Venue 24), until 28 August (not 15)
Two loveable characters and sparkling comedy performances shine in this new play by Irish author Gillian Duffy (The Ghosting of Rabbie Burns). Maureen and her mother, Beatrice, live together – by rights Maureen (Carolyn Calder) should be living alone as she’s going through an acrimonious divorce but Bea (Una Ailsa Macnab) is renting out her sheltered accommodation as an “AyrBnB – a boutique apartment overlooking the Costa Clyde”. Maureen is addicted to gin and social media so decides to try to start up a dating agency, Two’s Company.
Mo and her maw make for an aggressively odd couple, unable to go more than a couple of sentences without raising their voices, but the (sometimes strained) love they share is clear. Calder has an extraordinary voice and presence – like a gallus opera singer – and the scene in which she addresses a crowd of unruly singles is a comic highlight. There are a couple of obvious lines but Macnab and Calder sell them like pros, as does Matt Costello who has the tough job of playing all the male parts. There’s a lot to like here: Mo and Bea are a formidable pair that you’d be happy to encounter again. Rory Ford
Atsuko Okatsuka: The Intruder ***
Pleasance Courtyard (Bunker Three) (Venue 33), until 29 August
Atsuko Okatsuka’s Fringe debut is a truly curious hour: an introduction to the American stand-up of Taiwanese-Japanese parentage that, after the briefest pre-amble, drops you into a scary story, as the comic and her husband discover an intruder in their garden. Incredibly, this account then becomes a repeating saga, the shadowy figure's intentions inscrutable but the terror he instils in Okatsuka entirely relatable. Off this improbable tale, she also hangs her worries about appearing out-of-touch to teenager, the story off how her family remained off the grid when they first came to the US, the strategies of child-rearing they employed that have scrambled her personality and her mother and mother-in-law's coincidental schizophrenia.
Best of all are the insights she offers into the cracks of what mostly appears a happy marriage, discussing she and her husband's resistance to having children and the manner in which the sexual spark in their union has become messed up over time. With a burgeoning profile in the US, Okatsuka seldom pursues the most obvious lines of self-enquiry. Yet some way into her Fringe run, she's still checking her notes, reordering material and the show feels underwritten. Most frustratingly, the house invasion plotline is resolved with an underwhelming lack of drama. Jay Richardson