Edinburgh Festival Fringe reviews: Kathy and Stella Solve A Murder | Fabulett 1933 | The Importance of Being… Earnest? | The Actress | Sex With Friends (and Other Tiny Catastrophes)
Hilarious singing true crime podcasters, a magnetic Berlin cabaret host and a Wilde classic where the audience must help out all feature in our latest round-up of Fringe theatre and musicals. Reviews by Susan Mansfield, Ben Walters, David Hepburn, Katie Hawthorne and Rory Ford
Kathy and Stella Solve A Murder ****
Summerhall (Venue 26), until 28 August (not 23)
Kathy Baxter and Stella Carmichael present a true crime podcast from Kathy’s mum’s garage in Hull. (Tagline: “See you next murder!”) They hope they can bring about a change in their fortunes by interviewing Felicia Taylor, the glamorous author who solved the notorious case of the Hull decapitator. However, when Taylor herself is murdered shortly after giving them the brush-off, they realise they have no choice but to solve the case themselves.
Written and directed by Jon Brittain (Baby Reindeer), with music and lyrics by Matthew Floyd Jones (Frisky and Mannish) – who last collaborated on the Fringe First-winning A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad) – it’s fast-paced, clever, funny and bang up to date. Performed by a cast of five, led by Bronté Barbé (Kathy) and Rebekah Hinds (Stella), in the oven-like Paines Plough Roundabout, their energy is as undiminished as the audience’s enjoyment is.
All the favourite murder-mystery tropes are here: the police inspector who resents the intrusion of amateurs; the podcasters becoming part of the story they are trying to tell; the blind alleys and surprise revelations; the fact that Kathy and Stella are briefly considered suspects. The dialogue is so slick and the songs come so thick and fast that you can’t afford to miss a line.
While the murder plot grows increasingly silly, the show remains grounded in the friendship of the two women: sweet Kathy gradually overcoming anxiety to discover her passion in life, and mouthy Stella, who will face down anything apart from, it turns out, the prospect of losing her best friend. Thanks to this, this show is not just funny and irreverent: it’s also got heart. Susan Mansfield
Fabulett 1933 ****
theSpace @ Surgeons Hall (Haldane Theatre) (Venue 53), until 27 August
After a period of expanding tolerance and recognition, many expressions of gender variance – from identifying with lesser-used pronouns to telling stories to children while dressed in drag – are increasingly being framed in mainstream discussion as at best misguided and at worst a danger to the morals and safety of “normal” people. It’s worth paying attention to other periods in history when similar shifts have taken place. This captivating “one-person musical”, created and performed by Michael Trauffer, does just that, to compelling effect.
The setting is the fictional Fabulett, one of Berlin’s most notorious nightspots, in the countdown to the final closure of all such “immoral” venues by the Nazis in 1933. Trauffer is Felix, the club’s host; you could almost think of this as a version of Cabaret told from the Emcee’s perspective. As the clock ticks, Felix recalls the traumas of familial rejection and combat in the Great War, the discovery of meaning and belonging in the liberated Weimar demimonde and the disconcerting rise of fascism. The tale is told through cutting and clear original numbers as well as judiciously selected Weimar numbers by Spoliansky and Hollaender.
Trauffer strikes a magnetic figure, his fine features flashing from joy to terror, eyes wide and bright, body expressive, taut and vulnerable in leatherware, cape and cane. A running concern with the stakes of visibility plays out neatly through choices of headgear. There are other nicely woven strands, some (the role of pioneering sexuality researcher Magnus Hirschfeld) perhaps more familiar than others (the relevance of a particular kitchen gadget). Trauffer shows nuanced recognition of the capacity even for certain LGBT people to enable authoritarianism, intentionally or inadvertently. Who, after all, hasn’t experienced the urge to give credence to comforting and empowering fantasies? Fabulett 1933 shows the dire consequences of indulging them. Ben Walters
The Importance of Being… Earnest? ****
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33), until 28 August
Actors take to the stage for a performance of Oscar Wilde’s famous play, opening lines are delivered and the titular character Earnest is is set to make his grand entrance. But there’s a problem – the leading man hasn’t turned up. There are panicked looks, anxiously whispered asides, and the director takes to the stage with a novel solution: one that makes you thankful for the number of performers and/or show-offs that you get in an average Edinburgh audience during August.
This is interactive theatre that could double as a waking nightmare for people with an aversion to audience participation, although sensibly nobody becomes a major part of the show against their will. A series of clever tricks are used to ease the fledgling stars into their roles, with plenty of room for them to enjoy their unexpected stint in the (occasionally literal) spotlight.
The chaos increases further in the second of three acts. To misquote Oscar himself: “To lose one actor may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.” Look closer and you can see the clever ways in which that chaos is controlled, with perfect timing and staging ensuring that this is a play that only ever goes as wrong as it is designed to.
The final act ups the stakes even further, the professional cast dealing with the ever-increasing number of speedily-trained co-stars like so many plates spinning on poles. The result is pretty much irresistible as a performance, guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of even the greatest of improv-phobic curmudgeons.
It’s a high-wire act that presumably works better on some afternoons than others, although there’s a suspicion that the obvious slickness of the operation means that there are far more triumphs than disasters. This was certainly an example of the former. David Hepburn
The Actress **
Underbelly (Venue 302), until 29 August
It’s Restoration-era London and women are ready to take centre stage. Long Lane Theatre pits quiet, iron-willed Anne Marshall (Charlotte Price) against seductive, commanding Margaret Hughes (Eve Pearson-Wright) in a race to make history as the nation’s first “actress” – and flattens the stories of these women in the process. A violent dressing room assault is never mentioned after the fact, some loud, bawdy humour from a pompous director and sleazy patron of the arts feels barely 2D, and underestimated, intriguing side character Nell remains all but anonymous. The Actress’ best scenes contrast Anne and Margaret’s approaches to their craft, momentarily making history feel timely and alive. Katie Hawthorne
Sex With Friends (and Other Tiny Catastrophes) **
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33), until 28 August (not 24)
There’s an interesting aspect to this new musical from Theatre Goya: all the characters (four women and two men) are gay or bisexual. These various sexual permutations might seem initially intriguing but the palpable lack of convincing chemistry between any of the characters makes it hard to care. It’s confidently sung and the music is genuinely good; the full-cast Take a Rain Check number is a highlight. However, there's a limit to how many times you can listen to people fall out with each other in song and this exceeds it in the first half hour. Rory Ford