Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre reviews: Brown Boys Swim | Self Service | The Greatest Hits of Lily and John | Who Here’s Lost? | Gash Theatre Need Some Space

An energetic, poignant coming-of-age tale in Speedos and a veteran performer submitting themselves to a quirky MOT are among the highlights of our latest Fringe theatre round-up. Reviews by Joyce McMillan, Susan Mansfield and Fiona Shepherd

Brown Boys Swim ****

Pleasance Dome (Venue 23), until 28 August

What matters to a teenage boy? School, family, ambitions for the future, maybe; but there’s also the vital business of getting invited to the right parties. So it’s perhaps not surprising that in Karim Khan’s brilliant new coming-of-age play Brown Boys Swim, presented on the Fringe by the North Wall Arts Centre in Oxford, it’s a pool party that sets the whole story in motion; the pool party to which one of the coolest girls in school invites everyone, except best mates Mohsen and Kash, who – being Asian boys – she just assumes will be unable to swim.

Anish Roy and Varun Raj in Brown Boys SwimAnish Roy and Varun Raj in Brown Boys Swim
Anish Roy and Varun Raj in Brown Boys Swim

It’s a shocking stereotype. But the truth is that Mohsen and Kash can’t swim, and need to learn fast, in order to justify the belated invitation that fast-talking Kash has just extracted from his cool classmate. So for 50 glorious minutes, we watch these two brilliant, funny, opinionated friends – young men with everything to live for, despite the everyday racism they constantly navigate at school and on the streets – make hilarious and vividly-staged efforts, down at the local pool, to learn how to impress while wearing a smart pair of Speedos.

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In the end, the story takes a sombre turn, lending a huge poignancy to all that has gone before. The show’s most striking quality, though, is its huge vitality; the raw physical energy and beauty of two boys entering manhood, their dreams, their hopes, their contrasting relationships with their families, and their unstoppable bantering wit.

Anish Roy as the more thoughtful Mohsen and Varun Raj as the joker Kash deliver two superb matching performances, in John Hoggarth’s perfectly-pitched production; and the show is also driven along by Roshan Gunga’s thrilling score and sound design, full of terrific 21st century Asian beats that fully capture and celebrate the vivid lives of these two characters, who seem so real that they might have walked from the streets of any British city, straight onto the stage at the Pleasance Dome. Joyce McMillan

Self Service ****

theSpace @ Surgeons Hall (Venue 53), until 27 August (not 21)

Anne Rabbitt last appeared on the Fringe in 1986 with her double-act partner Doon Mackichan. In the 1980s, Rabbitt & Doon appeared alongside Jo Brand, Jenny Eclair, Paul Merton and others. While Mackichan went on to success in radio, TV and film, Rabbitt’s career was dogged by bad luck: an agent declared bankrupt, a theatre which burned down just before her West End debut opposite Griff Rhys Jones. Having not been on stage for 15 years, Rabbitt is now back with a clever, quirky one-woman show in which she demonstrates she has lost none of the talent and courage which should, by rights, have taken her further up the showbiz ladder.

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At the age of “not quite 60”, she books herself in for a service. The 1962 Classic Rabbitt model has been reliable and family-friendly, despite the occasional breakdown. Now, there’s a tendon issue and the cooling system is shot. With reference to the user’s manual, a mechanic/shrink (also played by Rabbitt) diagnoses problems and proposes solutions.

Self Service is a hard show to categorise, a mixture of autobiography, comedy and self-help. Rabbitt is disarmingly honest about the demands of being creative while raising kids, her frustration with her role-play job in corporate development and the feeling she has lost touch with who she is. She plays multiple parts (she is superbly good at accents), sings in a variety of styles (including rap) and plays the accordion.

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There is so much interesting material here that she could afford to take it more slowly, allowing the ideas more room to breathe. If the pseudo-self-help element does occasionally slip into cliche (“change yourself or change the story”), it’s a small price to pay for a performance so likeable, talented and free of self-pity that we wish it went on longer. Susan Mansfield

The Greatest Hits of Lily and John ***

Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33), until 28 August (not 18)

John is depressed and has decided to film his final goodbye when suddenly Lily – his ex (and best friend) – bursts in. Covering his tracks, John claims the film is part of a play commission he’s working on. Things spiral into absurdity as Lily insists they workshop the idea, which involves a horse costume and a mysterious gig in Scunthorpe.

Written and performed by actor-musicians Calum Sivyer and Rosanna Adams (Tritone Theatre), it’s structured like an album of “greatest hits” – the repetitive moments the pair keep coming back to as Lily tries to help John while fighting off her own demons, and John steadfastly refuses to be helped.

It’s a mix of stream-of-consciousness absurdity and quirky lo-fi songs which aims to capture the messiness of life and the pressures on mental health for today’s 20-somethings without making judgments or proposing solutions. While the endeavour isn’t entirely successful, one can at least see why it was worth the attempt. Although it is messy, disjointed and often confusing, Sivyer and Adams create a few remarkably tender moments, and a handful of interesting songs. Susan Mansfield

Who Here’s Lost? ***

Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33), until 29 August

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The title of Ben Moor’s latest sharp and surreal storytelling show could be a reference to the road trip at its heart. But it might also foreshadow the need for the listener to stay on their toes throughout, such is the density of imagination, allusion and wordplay packed into the text and the speed and dexterity with which Moor delivers his tale: an unusual odyssey in which the narrator agrees to ferry his ex-wife’s terminally ill mother around the many buildings she designed in her years as an architect.

This is a cleverly conjured world where everyone has a monster and a garden inside them, determining the equilibrium of their personality, where denizens can attend the Pronoun Film Festival (on the bill, Us, Them, She…), enjoy if-it-makes-you-happy hour in The Vague Animal pub, celebrate World Days Day (a day to mark all annual Days days) or take a loneliness test kit. There’s a whiff of Douglas Adams to the familiar unfamiliarity of it all but Moor goes above and beyond (was that not a double-bill at the Preposition Film Festival?) in his giddy strike rate, reeling off a wedding guest list with eccentric descriptive economy. One could easily miss the bigger picture of the point of it all but the devil is in the detail. Fiona Shepherd

Gash Theatre Need Some Space **

Assembly Rooms (Venue 20), until 27 August (not 24)

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If the girls from Gash Theatre haven’t already lost their heart to a starship trooper, it’s probably only a matter of time. This late-night space romp on sexual mores and body image is shakily built on DIY films, toy props and bootylicious interpretative dance routines about alien impregnation. As Maddie Flint and Nathalie Ellis-Einhorn freely admit, their sci-fi-inspired show is referential but far from reverential and plays out as a series of mostly silly hand-knitted sketches which boldly go nowhere. Fiona Shepherd