Edinburgh Festival Fringe reviews: Cassie Workman: Aberdeen | Fiji | Rapsody | Leaving Vietnam | La Serva Padrona | Making A Murderer: The Musical
A poetic tribute to the troubled life of Kurt Cobain, a transgressive love story soundtracked by Tiffany and a musical version of a Netflix true crime smash all feature in our latest theatre, musical and opera round-up. Words by Claire Smith, Fiona Shepherd, Rory Ford and Fergus Morgan
Cassie Workman: Aberdeen ****
Just the Tonic Nucleus (Venue 393), until 28 August (not 15, 22)
Nirvana frontman and singer Kurt Cobain was only 27 when he took his own life in a run-down wooden building in Seattle. It was 1994 and for music fans obsessed with grunge it was a tragedy from which it seemed impossible to recover.
In her epic hour-long poem Cassie Workman asks: “What if?”, travelling through space and time into an imaginary world where Cobain might not have died. Wearing ripped tights and chipped nail varnish, Workman is a creature stuck in time – a desolate fangirl who cannot fathom how a person she loved and admired so much could possibly be gone.
Her rhythmic paean conjures up the rainy wasteland of Aberdeen – the post-industrial Washington state town where Cobain grew up. She visits the underpass where he sometimes slept, she sits in the park next to his house and she evokes the scenes of his unhappy neglected childhood. It is both a meditation on the nature of depression and an exploration of unrequited love.
Workman hurtles through space and time, searching the rain, the underpass, the graffiti and the classrooms where Cobain worked as a janitor. She conjures with the elements to travel beyond death, to incarnate the ghost of her childhood hero. The story is scant on biographical detail, being more an attempt to brush souls with a person who has chosen to leave the earth and to find out why.
Workman dives into Cobain’s deep depression to confront the truth. Her hero didn’t want to live – he chose to die. Somehow there is a comfort in this reality. Cobain chose his fate. It was what he wanted. It is as it is. And there is a miracle at work. Out of something bleak, hopeless and irreversible Workman has created a thing of beauty. Claire Smith
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33), until 29 August (not 13)
Love stories come in many forms, but Fiji is among the freakier examples, even if it initially plays out like an awkward first date as Sam (Pedro Leandro) nervously arrives at the home of gourmand Nick (Eddie Loodmer-Elliott), cheap bottle of Spanish wine in hand.
Beyond the small talk about saucepans, there is clearly more than a dinner date at stake – Sam has dumped all of his electronic devices and told his friends he was booked a one-way ticket to Fiji. Instead, he’s helping Nick with his “bespoke culinary research”; Nick, meanwhile, plays along with Sam’s list of supposedly revealing questions about ideal dinner party guests and the like.
Even as the transgressive nature and power dynamics of their joint project are revealed, the duo continue to engage with each other in matter-of-fact, even banal terms. Tiffany’s teen anthem I Think We’re Alone Now becomes the unlikely soundtrack to the extreme things we do for love. Sam and Nick remain coy about their motivations for entering into such an illicit covenant but as their weekend together draws to a close, vulnerabilities are exposed and their horror-show liaison takes on a quasi-spiritual quality. Fiona Shepherd
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33), until 29 August
Birmingham-based Vision Production Company is the 2022 recipient of the Charlie Harthill Special Reserve fund, supporting this show about four young people with troubled backgrounds who collide and bond while living in a hostel. Aspiring rapper Jams could be on the verge of a career break, Elz is a cauldron of hurt and anger, devout Jaime was sexually assaulted by her pastor and Toni dulls the pain of her abusive background with a drug habit. Naturalistic performances breed convincing character portrayals, but the script is a little piecemeal, with the candid rap interludes outshining the standard dialogue. Fiona Shepherd
Leaving Vietnam **
theSpace @ Surgeon’s Hall (Venue 53), until 13 August
The story of a Vietnam vet who returns home to operate his own auto shop may sound like a Bruce Springsteen song but here unfortunately it’s more like a Bon Jovi one – all the rough edges have been smoothed away. Writer-performer Richard Vergette may be a fine actor (his American accent is excellent) but even De Niro would struggle to sell this overlong monologue as ex-soldier Jimmy Vandenburg ultimately becomes one of Trump’s “deplorables”. It never convinces because Jimmy never convinces – he is less a character, more an amalgamation of Vietnam flashbacks and folksy tics wearing a red MAGA cap. Rory Ford
La Serva Padrona ***
theSpace @ Surgeon’s Hall (Venue 53), until 13 August
La Serva Padrona is a 1733 operatic intermezzo by Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi that’s largely forgotten today. It tells the story of Uberto and Serpina, a rich aristocrat and his matrimonially ambitious maid – and it is ridiculously riffed on in this one-man show from Freiburg-based comedy musician David Williams Hughes.
Hughes plays the anxious assistant to the assistant manager of a big opera house – who, thanks to coronavirus-caused cuts, is also the institution’s last remaining staff member. It is up to him to save opera as an art form, so he decides to fulfil a lifelong dream and produce a solo staging of La Serva Padrona. Armed only with a DIY opera kit consisting of a tape-player, a mop and some masks – but with a helpful audience on hand – he proceeds to fumble his way through an English translation of Pergolesi’s piece.
Hughes has a winning, workmanlike charm on stage, and his crowd co-operate willingly. He doesn’t sing badly, either, belting along to a jazzed-up backing tack, investing his uppity Uberto with a pompous bass and his girlish Serpina with flimsy falsetto. Of course, the whole thing is entirely absurd – but it’s absurd in an enjoyable, inoffensive way. A fun, frolicsome 45 minutes. Fergus Morgan
Making A Murderer: The Musical ***
Underbelly Bristo Square (Venue 302), until 29 August (not 15)
Welcome to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, the kind of small-town setting that could boast the likes of a “very exciting milking display” or a racist history of “whites only after dark”. That was until hit Netflix series Making a Murderer led the most recent wave of watercooler true crime documentaries, and immortalised “Wisconsin’s Maritime Capital” as the home of Steven Avery, a man exonerated of a sexual assault and attempted murder conviction after 18 years in jail, only to be re-imprisoned for another murder on possibly shaky evidence. And now Smart Entertainment has decided to make a song and dance about this potential miscarriage of justice.
Condensing two ten-hour series into a one-hour musical is no mean feat, so there’s no hanging about as the cast jump from high street to jailhouse to salvage yard, from a barbershop doo-wop on the joys of DNA evidence to a razzle-dazzle number fronted by prosecutor Ken Kratz with such precision that even a rookie true crime fan can follow the bullet points.
But there’s not much room for developing themes or character beyond a general caution against prejudice based on class and race and a visual roll call of wrongfully convicted prisoners – mostly black men – is shoehorned into the sentimental finale. Fiona Shepherd