Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre reviews: And Then The Rodeo Burned Down | Bloke and His American Bantu | Thurgood | Bye Bye Baby | Bathroom Confession

A barnstorming queer cowboy clown show, plus little-known South African and African-American histories in the spotlight. Reviews by Katie Hawthorne, Susan Mansfield and Rory Ford

And Then The Rodeo Burned Down ****

TheSpace @Niddry Street, until 13 August

“The rodeo is the best place in the world!” declares Dale, a denim-clad rodeo clown, with a swaggering tip of the hat. It’s not a cowboy hat because they are not – yet – a cowboy. They will be! One day soon! Unless someone razes the rodeo to the ground, of course. But who’d want to do that? This barnstorming Fringe debut from New York via Maryland duo Chloe Rice and Natasha Roland is a breakneck hour of hoedowns, showdowns, and the ever-looming threat of theatrical arson.

After painting a smile on their face, our rodeo clown gets to work, whipping up the crowd between the headline acts of bulls and broncos. It’s just another day on the job until a mysterious stranger, a copycat in suede chaps and oily denim, arrives to challenge this cowboy-in-waiting’s sense of purpose. Rice and Roland’s tender, tactile clowning is a tumbling joy to watch – it’s thrilling when they antagonise each other, gun fingers drawn, and even more so when the seeds of a shy romance begin to bloom.

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By turns a vaudevillian thriller and a queer cowboy Waiting for Godot, And Then The Rodeo Burned Down sends up clichés of macho posturing, pulls off an emotional encounter with a lost bull suffering an identity crisis, and then squares up to the act of storytelling itself. It’s expensive to keep the show on the road these days – any clown knows that. Can these ragtag stragglers afford a happy ending? Or any ending at all?

Soundtracked, like every respectable Western, by Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and Miley Cyrus, Rice and Roland’s double act is pure Fringe spirit: joyful, rebellious, and dashingly rough around the edges. Some cowboys just want to kiss while the world burns. Katie Hawthorne

Bloke and His American Bantu ***

Natasha Roland and Chloe Rice in And Then The Rodeo Burned DownNatasha Roland and Chloe Rice in And Then The Rodeo Burned Down
Natasha Roland and Chloe Rice in And Then The Rodeo Burned Down

Assembly George Square Studios, until 14 August

It’s 1960 and South African writer Bloke Modisane is exiled in London, where he finds the weather cold and the people colder. Written and researched by Siphiwo Mahala, Bloke and His American Bantu dramatises nearly a decade of correspondence between Modisane and the legendary African-American poet Langston Hughes, revealing a deep friendship and artistic alliance built in correspondence across the Atlantic. Told through letters, phone calls and the occasional whiskey-soaked reunion, Mahala’s play is rich with references to contemporary artists, musicians and activists in both Johannesburg and New York.

The text can be dense at times, but actors Josias Dos Moleele (Hughes) and Anele Nene (Modisane) jolt the history alive, bringing heart, pain, humour and clarity. Moleele’s Hughes brims with intelligence and compassion, while Nene’s charismatic Modisane sizzles with barely contained energy, particularly when describing his frustration as a writer trapped in the land of his country’s colonisers. It’s powerful to learn how both men helped each other – with inspiration, cash and connections, but also with difficult questions of diasporic identity. The clunky stage stuffed with furniture and pixelated graphics on a Powerpoint-esque backdrop do not befit actors of such class, but this is vital history. As Bloke says, “Forward!” Katie Hawthorne

Thurgood ***

Greenside @ Riddles Court, until 13 August

Thurgood Marshall was the first African-American judge appointed to the US Supreme Court, and the first Black Attorney General. George Stevens Jnr’s one-man play premiered in 2006 with James Earl Jones in the title role. Now brought adeptly to life by actor and drama professor Mark Cryer, it’s a swift canter through a long and eventful life.

Born working-class in Baltimore in 1908, Marshall had a passion for the law from childhood. As a Chief Counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), he fought benchmark civil rights cases, including Brown vs Board of Education which won the right to desegregate schools in South Carolina in 1954.

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Cryer has to sprint through five decades, finding the natural moments of drama and bringing Thurgood’s personality to life, while communicating the necessary historical and legal context. It’s a tall order, and at times the play does have the feeling of a history lesson rather than taking us to the heart of Thurgood’s experience.

While there are a couple of jarring moments of stars-and-stripes patriotism, the play conveys vividly the depth of entrenched racism against which Thurgood battled. At a time when Black histories are being re-explored, his is a story we should all know. Susan Mansfield

Bye Bye Baby ***

theSpace on North Bridge, until 13 August

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There’s a winning – almost effortless – energy to this breezy comedy drama that should strike a chord with many. Three friends hit the chippy to wind down – and sober up – after a drunken girls’ night out. They're a varied bunch: the overtly sexualised Ali (Phoebe Graham), the relatively pragmatic Ellie (Eden Vaughan) and their girlish and – supposedly – inexperienced pal Lucie (Alice Walker). These are completely confident energetic performances that manage to sketch their characters almost as soon as they hit the stage. They’re accompanied by a balloon with the face of Phoebe Waller-Bridge – their “upper-class feminist queen” – and, like Fleabag, this too is a celebration of female friendship. So much so, in fact, that when a boorish old flame of Ali’s (played by the show's producer, Luke Holland) turns up, it’s a genuinely unwelcome intrusion. Secrets are spilled, tempers are frayed and chips with garlic mayo are had. There’s a serious dramatic core to writer-director Fabien O’Farrell's enjoyable, confidently staged play, but it never loses momentum or stops looking for laughs. The central trio manage remarkably well with O’Farrell’s rat-a-tat overlapping dialogue and are a pleasure to spend time with. Rory Ford

Bathroom Confession **

ZOO Playground, until 13 August

It’s not just writers that need an ear for dialogue – actors need one too, and there’s quite a range in this new play by Solveig Paulsen. In the stalls of ladies’ toilet in a Catholic High School, four young women drink, discuss and practice sex magick rituals to surprisingly little effect. The performances range from very good to dully monotone, but Paulsen’s dialogue can be a hinderance. It’s hard to buy these characters as teenagers when they often talk how an articulate adult feels that young women should talk. It’s evidently a sincere, well-meant piece – its only real sin is being dull. Rory Ford

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