Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre reviews: A Place that Belongs to Monsters | Bluewater | Madame Chandelier’s Opera House Party | The Chairs Revisited
An equine-themed storytelling show and a lockdown inspired revival of Eugène Ionesco’s surreal masterpiece The Chairs are among our critics’ highlights in this latest theatre round-up. Reviews by Susan Mansfield, Sally Stott and Ben Walters
A Place That Belongs to Monsters ****
Summerhall, until 27 August
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – the biblical ones from the Book of Revelation (Famine, War, Conquest and Death) – might seem an unlikely starting point for a storytelling show. But writer and performer Casey Jay Andrews, who won a Fringe First in 2018 for The Archive of Educated Hearts, is not one for conventional choices; she alternates this show with 2019’s The Wild Unfeeling World, inspired by Moby Dick.
Horses populate this new, multi-stranded narrative: toy horses, carousel horses, a reluctant race horse. The Anatomy Lab in Summerhall where Andrews performs has also seen its fair share of horses, mostly not live ones. Early on, the signs are there that this is not going to be a happily-ever-after kind of tale.
Andrews sets the scene with a short discourse on thunder and lightning, the destruction that is part of every act of creation, and chance events which change lives. In this risky atmosphere, seven-year-old Rianne heads out at night, wanting to buy a tasty treat for her mum. An angry teenage girl jumps the railings to ride the carousel in a funfair. A grieving secondary school teacher learns of a champion race house that has been refusing to run, and sets out to save her. And an old woman walks into a forest at night holding a box of seeds. Four women, of different ages, taking risks, taking agency, challenging expectations.
Andrews’ compassionate, beautifully crafted stories, directed by Steve McCourt, balance tender description with keeping the audience on the edge of our seats. The design is subtle, as is George Jennings’ music; everything focusses back on the words. As the stories converge one night in a fairground somewhere in suburban England, we know we have been on one heck of a ride. Susan Mansfield
Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose, until 28 August
“Some people think that 16 is a bit young to get knocked up,” says the wily, streetwise girl in front of us, staring at a designer baby stroller. Alarm bells might be ringing, but writer/ performer Grace Quigley’s sparky new play delights in shattering the expectations placed on her smart, sassy but also sweet seventeen-year-old who, back in 2008, spends her days skipping between school, skate parks, streets and creeps, as she lives her life with a confidence she shares with her friends, occasionally permeated by self-doubt when trying to please infantile boys that she’s not even sure she likes.
Quigley’s writing is a blast, like standing in a wind tunnel of late-2000s nostalgia, where everyone’s wearing Lipsy dresses, Victoria's Secret perfume or Lynx Africa. Deflecting perverts on the bus with the effectiveness of having done it too many times before, this bright flame of a “beautifully handsome” young woman is on a journey out of small-scale everyday urban idiocracy – the poetry and politics of the wider world moving ever closer. “Fighting for each other’s rights is hot”, she says.
It’s a piece as pacy as an intense night out, in which this rockstar of suburbia realises, through the brushed off grimness of trial and error sexual encounters, what and who she wants. At only half an hour long, Bluewater is over almost as soon as it’s begun, but it burns its searing mark of defiance, self-love and sheer exuberance into the stage like a speeding motorbike. Hackney-based Quigley is an exceptional new writer and performer, while, at the on-stage mixing desk, Karima Antoinette creates an immersive landscape of inner-city lights, sounds and, importantly, music. The two of them seem to have just landed in Edinburgh, in their electric car – a real-life story that feels as thrilling as the one on stage. Sally Stott
Madame Chandelier’s Opera House Party ****
Greenside @ Nicolson Square (Fern Studio), until 27 August
According to Madame Chandelier, our host for this infectiously bonkers, family-friendly reworking of operatic lore, the ultimate diva of all time is a Scot. Lucia di Lammermoor, to be precise, for the reason that, while pretty much every other female operatic lead ends up getting either married or killed, Lucia gets both! A goofy gag that also skewers the shortcomings (to put it mildly) of traditional operatic gender politics, it’s typical of a show whose evident love for, and immersion in, opera is balanced by the willingness both to have fun with it and make fun of it too.
Sporting a cartoony Valkyrie horned-helmet-and-pigtails combo, trusty accordion and ever-handy bottle of prosecco, Madame Chandelier is holding a party and all the greatest divas in opera are on their way. Through a cavalcade of quick-changing wigs and costumes, we meet a whole range of them, from the most iconic, such as Carmen and Violetta, to little-known characters whose stories involve sleepwalking and Alpine ravines. After they treat us to their death scenes – blasted out boisterously by Madame – we get to know them a bit in nicely simplified caricature versions.
While there are knowing nods for aficionados, there’s no need for more than a glancing acquaintance with opera to enjoy the show. Any associations with stuffy elitism are quickly dispelled through cute and effective lo-fi techniques, from inventive costumes and props to bits involving kazoos, gargling and gummy bears. There’s some fab audience interaction and particular attention paid to the enjoyment of any children in the audience. For the adults, there are spiky barbs at the expense of some of opera’s more reactionary tendencies – worn lightly enough never to get in the way of the melodious fun. Ben Walters
The Chairs Revisited ****
Pleasance Dome, until 29 August
“Stay indoors, be careful.” This brilliantly conceived new version of Eugène Ionesco’s surreal, funny and moving mini-masterpiece piles on the pressures of lockdown as his isolating older couple, trapped in their home, are slowly surrounded by a sea of invisible guests and the endlessly growing collection of chairs that they bring out for them. Bart Vanlaere and Louise Seyffert are splendid as the wonderfully weird, idiosyncratic and in love couple who might be losing track of the reality that may or may not be outside, but have created their own routines and connections beyond it. If there is only one thing that’s ‘true’ in this mad, crumbling world, it’s their relationship.
“You could have been a chef, a conductor, a CEO,” the woman tells her husband as he paces the living room, trying to grasp the half-recalled memories of their past, her unfailing belief in him, despite his advanced years, fuelling his still strong ambitions. Not just a simple caretaker, he must “fight” to share his “message”. Quite what this is, neither she nor we really know. Nevertheless the invisible guests, including a mysterious, revered and, in this production, robotic ‘Orator’, are arriving and the chairs need putting out.
There is vivaciousness in madness, passion in confusion, charisma in chaos, as Vanlaere – playing the man like a bombastic but vulnerable and ageing Withnail – and Seyffert (still his biggest fan) befriend and flirt with unseen senior military personnel, a former beauty queen, a photographer and whole host of other guests, with flashes of insight into their shared and often salacious past. Through the rhyming rhythms of Ionesco’s still sizzling dialogue, originally performed in 1952, “the perfect lockdown party” is created – and what could be seen as the sadness of an older couple trapped in isolation with their imaginary friends is washed away by the warmth of the surreal new world, full of abstract, unwarranted hope, that they have created there together. Sally Stott