Edinburgh Festival Fringe reviews: Speed Dial | Headcase | Beneath | Blue & Pip | Pillows | Once Upon a Midnight Dreary | Daylight | Taiwan Season: The Whisper of the Waves | Ideation | Independence | Freedam | Spit Me Out | The Transfiguration of Mrs Lamen | UK Underdog

An old-fashioned Agatha Christie-style romp and a quirky monologue about a daughter’s relationship with her father are the highlights of this latest Fringe round-up. Reviews by David Pollock, Rory Ford, Kelly Apter, Susan Mansfield and Fergus Morgan

Speed Dial ****

Pleasance Dome, until 29 August

Come for the sub-Agatha Christie mystery about a 1970s university professor attempting to solve the mystery of his daughter’s kidnapping, and stay for the very inventive and precise physical comedy which escalates this production from Fringe-experienced young company Spies Like Us to the next level. Despite the vintage of the setting, our hero – known only as ‘The Professor’ – is a perennially overworked and underpaid academic, whose troubles are added to by the unusual demands of his Dean, as the course syllabus is changed at the last minute and top marks across the board are demanded.

That this show is some kind of commentary on the pressures facing university staff is stretching the premise to breaking point, though. It’s simply an old-fashioned romp, with the scenario pushing Hamish Lloyd Barnes’ Professor to breaking point when the news about his daughter comes through. Aided by wide-eyed student Terry (Evangeline Dickson), he explores the university for clues as to her whereabouts, through the offices and library and into the realm of the mysterious Groundskeeper (Elle Dillon-Reams). Crossword clues play their part as well.

Hide Ad

Ollie Norton-Smith’s direction and Zak Nemorin’s sharp and eye-catching choreography really set the show off, with the 1970s setting apparently just an excuse to use old-fashioned corded telephones as props within the dances and physical set-pieces. The costume design for the quintet of actors is also eye-catching, matching grey trousers and colour-coordinated shirts like a bunch of period city office-workers.

Alongside Barnes, Dickson and Dillon-Reams, Genevieve Sabherwal as the Professor’s daughter Flora and, especially, Tullio Campanale as the comically stuffy Dean complete an extremely tight, characterful and well-rehearsed ensemble. If there is an intended message at the show’s heart about a culture of overwork ruining personal relationships, then it’s lightly delivered amid all the comic and visually very pleasing spectacle. David Pollock

Headcase ***

Speed Dial. Pic: Harry PlowdenSpeed Dial. Pic: Harry Plowden
Speed Dial. Pic: Harry Plowden

Pleasance Courtyard, until 29 August

The fact this is Kristin Mcilquham’s debut play is a point within the plot, the writing of it one of a number of achievements which she hoped to reach before turning forty. This age is also a key element of her story, as this was when her father had the brain haemorrhage which almost took his life. Did the effects of it forever change the relationship between father and daughter? Or had her Glaswegian dad always been taciturn and explosively rude to her friends? And what would happen to her when she reached the age his life had changed forever?

Mcilquham’s monologue is full of quirky interactive touches as it tells the story of her family, beginning with the notebook and pen she hands to every audience member on their way in, a recurring motif which refers to memory and the absence of it experienced by her dad. Her delivery is bright, welcoming and conversational – a recurring joke about the pronunciation of her surname is well-worked – and she details the elements of her story with a carefully composed chain of revelation which pulls her audience through the show.

Perhaps the sense of quirk is a little too self-conscious in places, but her story is so deeply personal and rooted in a difficult subject which many might find solace in the discussion of, that this first effort can be classed as nothing but a success. David Pollock

Beneath *

theSpace on The Mile, until 27 August

In a dystopian not-so-distant future where global warming has raised the sea level and people dress like clownish hobos, two people living in an undersea bunker are unexpectedly joined by two intruders. That's basically your lot for Daniel Gee Husson's new play which is largely distinguished by a relentless lack of pace and a remarkable dearth of drama. Mostly competently performed, the actors' greatest accomplishment is just getting through this and the ending is so flatly conceived that you only realise it's over when one dead character (SPOILER, I guess) gets up to take a curtain call. Rory Ford

Blue & Pip *

theSpace on North Bridge, until 27 August

Hide Ad

The best thing you could say about this is that it probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Helena Fox’s drama tries to explore the pain of endometriosis and its effects on queer couple Blue and Pip’s efforts to have a child. Supposedly there’s a folktale aspect to all this but awkwardly faltering performances, flat staging, flubbed lines, inadvertently overlapping dialogue and scenes that go nowhere sabotage any underlying themes and good intentions. Rory FordPillows **

theSpace on North Bridge, until 27 August

Two exceptionally polished performances from Aaron Garland and Eve Billington go a long way to make stretches of this new one act play by Sam Adlam enjoyable but it’s ultimately overstretched. A teenage boy is re-united with his on-again-off-again girlfriend whom he’s known since they were 15. Both unnamed characters have returned from different universities, theoretically free to pursue “pretty people” of all genders but both clearly hung up on each other. Passages here successfully capture the articulate inarticulacy of the complex rush of emotions you experience when you don’t necessarily have the life experience to fully process them, but it eventually becomes a stifling experience. This could quite easily be edited down into something better – there are three points in the play where it could profitably end. But. The. Characters. Just. Keep. Talking. Incessantly. Rory Ford

Once Upon a Midnight Dreary **

theSpace on North Bridge, until 27 August

Hide Ad

There’s a neat idea at the centre of this new play by Scots playwright Annie James – the circumstances behind the death of Edgar Allan Poe – but it does very little with it. There are no solutions here. Poe wakes up in a Baltimore alley with only two clownish hobos for company. They taunt him with scenes from his stories and sing far too much. Adam Usnami’s songs are fine but they add nothing to what there is of the plot, so having two back-to-back right in the middle stops the show dead in its tracks. Rory FordDaylight *

Laughing Horse @ 32 Below, until 28 August

Hopefully a helpful tip for the actors in this new piece by Helena Coggan: naturalistic acting is all well and good but please try and raise your voice above a softly-spoken conversational tone when performing in front of a room full of people. That said, there's little here that repays your close attention as Conor and Julia wait in a basement for her apocalyptic visions to come true. Possibly inspired (if that's not too strong a word) by Lars Von Trier's Melancholia, it's essentially one long extended scene and the dramatic highlight comes when someone gets a bit cross and kicks a chair. Rory Ford

Taiwan Season: The Whisper of the Waves **

Summerhall, until 28 August

When the members of Shinehouse Theatre move as one, it’s a sight to behold. The painted white faces, flowing costumes, tight unison and eyes ablaze with passion are hugely theatrical. Problems start when they attempt to deliver a narrative via voiceover and English subtitles. Most of the nuance and subtext is lost as we hear about a same-sex couple struggling to get pregnant in the face of societal judgement, and a young man who connects more with pot plants than his own family. Botanical detail and facts about animal extinction feel shoehorned in and sadly there are only brief moments of emotional connection. Kelly Apter

Ideation **

theSpaceTriplex, until 27 August

Some of the performances in this Exeter University production are rather better than you might expect from student drama but still don't quite manage to put this over the top. To be fair, many professional theatre companies might struggle to mount Californian playwright Aaron Loeb's black boardroom comedy thriller where a group of execs are tasked with brainstorming a solution to a quite horrifying scenario – as a thought experiment, or so they're told. It's played at a good pace but at 80 minutes this dense, dark material really requires top-tier talent – and even then it would present a challenge. Still, you can't help but admire their ambition. Rory Ford

Independence **

Hill Street Theatre, until 28 August

Edinburgh Little Theatre are a non-professional company, and their examination of the Scottish independence debate needs to be viewed in this context, with some performances and technical aspects less polished and resonant than others. Still, their dramatisation of the Act of Union’s negotiation and a divided Scottish family’s discussions before the 2014 referendum and beyond are a useful historic primer, and apparent attempts to remain non-partisan and let the audience decide at the end are thoughtfully worked out. David Pollock

Freedam **

theSpace on North Bridge, until 27 August

This new family-friendly comedy by Luke Heywood has plenty of colour, energy and cheese puns but it's tough for anyone over 10 to endure. Rival supervillains Ice Cold and Channing Merchandise are both after 60 tons of Edam in a bid to power a mind control signal and a teleportation device. Madam Merchandise is fun but the story is incomprehensible and all the cheesy pop hits can't disguise the fact that the cast's clear enthusiasm for the material is a bit misplaced. Young children might get something out of it but there are better shows out there. Rory Ford

Spit Me Out **

theSpace on the Mile, until 27 August

Hide Ad

It feels like a big leap to go from cheery cabaret numbers performed by two men in sequinned waistcoats to an exploration of a young woman’s experiences of sexual violence. While Slap ’N’ Tickle Theatre Company have the best of intentions with this devised piece, attempting to cajole Sophie (Madeleine Gordon) into owning her trauma through song and dance routines feels like a misjudgement. Lawrence Harp and Drew Rafton, who also play her boyfriends, do their fair share of heavy lifting, but by speaking for her for most of the show, they are dancing around some complex and sensitive issues. Susan Mansfield

The Transfiguration of Mrs Lamen **

Gilded Balloon Teviot, until 29 August

It is in an awkward venue at an awkward time – mid-morning in Gilded Balloon’s Wine Bar, with a pillar in the middle of the auditorium and the deafening aircon drowning out half the dialogue – but the truth is that The Transfiguration of Mrs Lamen would struggle on any stage. Alex Yates’ Pinter-ish drama presents a pantomime dame (Darren Machin) having a meltdown pre-show, while a stagehand (Charlie Thurston) desperately tries to keep things together. The acting is OTT, though, and Yates’ dialogue is underdeveloped and his direction clunky. No, it isn’t helped by the venue, but it doesn’t help itself either. Fergus Morgan

UK Underdog **

theSpace @Surgeons Hall, until 27 August

Hide Ad

Lone performer Steve Spiro tells his own story – or certainly, the character bears his name and it's told in the first-person, although this true tale is apparently ‘based on’, so there may be embellishment in there. He tells of life as a bullied Jewish-English schoolboy who worries about the size of his (not-yet-)manhood and doesn’t quite get the subtext of Frankie Goes to Hollywood lyrics, before finding solace in kung fu and drama, then emigrating to the US after a violent incident. The story is involving and personably told, although the pacing is patchy and in places overlong, and experiences of UK life have clearly been jarringly adapted for a US audience. David Pollock