My Lover Was a Salmon in the Climate Apocalypse **
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33) until 29 August
MUSICALS AND OPERA
Medea the Musical **
Paradise in Augustines (Venue 152) until 28 August
How to Build a Wax Figure **
Assembly George Square Studios (Venue 17) until 29 August
Daddy Issues **
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33) until 29 August
Sad Girls Club **
Gilded Balloon Teviot (Venue 14) until 29 August
Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose (Venue 24) until 28 August
None of the shows listed above should have any stars. The stars shouldn’t exist. They have nothing to do with what I want to say about the work described, which is often messy, flawed, interesting and experimental in the way it should be, as this is the Fringe. But the ** rating, particularly, has other connotations, mainly to do with whether or not you should go and see a show – which is obviously useful to think about, as few people have endless amounts of money to spend on tickets.
But the Fringe isn’t just about cost-benefit analysis. It’s about taking a risk – and seeing ** on a review risks discouraging that, either if you’re putting on a show or going to see one.
Over the past few years, I’ve seen fewer * shows. This has been disappointing. Either they are taking fewer risks or I am. But I’d really like to get rid of the ** rating. And the *** (often “only ***”) , which can put people off seeing things that they might otherwise like. And even *****, one of the most effective ways to make people hate something that they’d usually enjoy.
The **** ratings can stay, because they’re useful. The * can stay because they’re exciting. But mainly the ** need to go, because they risk putting off people from continuing to try things out, as well as audiences, funders and producers from supporting them – which we all need if we want to see more **** shows in the future. So, here are some interesting ** shows from this year – in the hope that we will ever have to think of them, or any others, in this derivative way again.
My Lover Was a Salmon in the Climate Apocalypse combines fun fish facts with earnest ponderings on “environmental collapse”, a pedestrian romance, and an amateurish approach to dialogue that may or may not be deliberate. But the lively musical numbers are contrastingly professional, performed by a cast of musicians in a piece that culminates in a still very-human-looking hero being descaled and wrapped in tinfoil. It’s a piece that could be very funny and provocative if it was more focused and consistent in its tone – only then it might be less interesting, less messy, less Fringe.
Medea the Musical is also narratively all over the place, with its oddly conceived reimagining of the Greek myth as a “rock concert in a courtroom”, but it has extremely catchy songs, a live band (with string section) and performers who are also excellent singers. With songs that seem only tenuously connected to the plot, it’s a piece that requires the skill of an archaeologist to excavate the original story, but if you can resist the temptation of doing this, it’s an upbeat hour of jazzy show tunes by a likeable and talented troupe of young people.
How to Build a Wax Figure sounds brilliant in the programme: an anatomical wax sculptor meets a woman with a passion for making prosthetic eyes and they fall in love. Unfortunately, the earnest and oddly emotionless love story between the two women is less electrifying than the intriguing setting. There is a script waiting to be developed somewhere under the medical charts and props, along with an unopened bottle of emotional chemistry. But having spent hours looking at empty stages, it’s great to be taken to a place that’s the opposite of an abstract, black space.
Daddy Issues is far darker: a cold monologue about a sex line worker who critiques but also enables the paedophile fantasies of the men who pay her, by role-playing underage girls. It’s extremely grim – which is clearly the point – and writer/performer Anna Krauze feels like she’s having to push herself to perform such bleak material. “I enjoy it,” says her character mechanically, when talking about a past relationship with an older man, but looking like she wants both her overall situation and the show to end immediately. It’s unsettling and uncomfortable. When it is finally over, she feels deserving of a round of applause simply for getting through it all, along with us, the audience.
Sad Girls Club, despite the title, is much more enjoyable – and the audience, many of whom have come straight from the bar, love it. “I’m drunk and I feel sad!” one gleefully announces – and it’s this idea of finding joy from being honest about how you feel, even if this is miserable, which is what the show’s all about. The performance, in which a group of characters in “Sad Girls Club” chat about their work, relationship and friend dramas, is less developed than the overall concept and the script could do with more structure – but in terms of “creating a safe space” to be up or to be down, it’s a neon-pink, balloon-waving success.
KITES creates its own immersive but quieter atmosphere, through the story of two young girls – one from Ireland and the other from Spain – who play at being characters in fairy tales. While the story of them growing up, growing apart and being reunited again feels small and somewhat elusive, the poetic imagery – as we fly through time and space with their kites – is striking. It’s a piece that is most successful when it transcends reality, even if, in reality, there’s insufficient drama happening back down on earth. In seeking emotion from the world beyond its immediate surroundings, it also beautifully describes the stars where they work best: in the sky.
Looking out at the horizon, beyond the purple cow and into the future, imagine the Fringe 2023: a place where we go to see shows because they sound interesting, rather than because someone’s given them a rating of one to five. How radical would that be? Perhaps in the final days of this year’s festival, we could experiment and try it out? And then, whether it “works” or not, think about ways that we could do things differently next year.
Editor’s note: While we very much respect Sally’s views on the star ratings system we use, and – in the interests of promoting healthy debate – are more than happy to give her a platform to voice those views here, there are currently no plans to drop star ratings from festival reviews in either The Scotsman or Scotland on Sunday.
CLARIFICATION: The original version of this review suggested the sex worker character in Daddy Issues had said "I enjoy it" in reference to being asked to role-play underage girls. She in fact uses the phrase to refer to a previous relationship with an older man. The text has been updated to reflect this.