Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre reviews: Choo Choo! (Or... Have You Ever Thought About ****** **** *****? (Cos I Have)) | Otto and Astrid’s Joint Solo Project | For Better, For Worse | House of Life | Mother Mama Mommy | Witches

Our latest batch of theatre reviews includes a deceptively playful pastiche of kids’ TV, a German electro punk duo, and a comic drama set during the run-up to the Scottish Independence Referendum.

Choo Choo! (Or... Have You Ever Thought About ****** **** *****? (Cos I Have)) ****

Pleasance Dome (Venue 23) until 28 August

It’s the kind of show where badges are handed out that say whether or not you are comfortable with audience participation, but this also offers the chance to to get ‘picked’ which involves embracing risk. The balance between danger and safety is something that this deceptively playful show – which gradually reveals what’s hidden behind the ‘****** **** *****’ – takes a lot of pleasure in exploring, from inside the primary coloured dungarees-and-no-socks world of a kid’s TV show.

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Here high-energy “best friends” Nye (Russell Thompson) and Duncan (Hallis) are joined by their pal Laura, doing BSL in the corner, and a radio that is more a member of the family than a household object. With the holidays on the way, every day starts with the same upbeat song to a point where it all starts to become a bit sinister. “Everything’s alright,” they say, but you may not be so sure.

Turn on the radio and its BBC-style programmes – brilliantly pastiched quiz shows, political debates and early evening sitcoms – keep descending into sex and violence in a way that's funny because it’s mean in the way good comedy often is. A rigid world where you can “be whatever you want to be” except “bad” can feel like it deserves a good kick. Or a shove, a bit like pushing someone under a train – or is that a bit much?

It’s a question that drives Nye and Duncan apart in a piece that creatively and cleverly reveals its purpose: an exploration of the kind of intrusive thoughts that we might all have at some point, but which affect some more than others.

With the laughter momentarily slipping away, Nye and Duncan embrace fear, risk and a more real kind of friendship, before a thrillingly funny final scene concludes this original and audacious exploration of mental health and theatrical form.

Choo Choo! (Or... Have You Ever Thought About ****** **** *****? (Cos I Have))Choo Choo! (Or... Have You Ever Thought About ****** **** *****? (Cos I Have))
Choo Choo! (Or... Have You Ever Thought About ****** **** *****? (Cos I Have))

Sally Stott

Otto and Astrid’s Joint Solo Project ***

Assembly George Square Gardens (Venue 3) until 27 August

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There comes a crunch time in every successful band’s career when the option of solo projects will be broached. One suspects that Otto, the younger half of Germany’s top electro punk sibling duo Die Roten Punkte, had no say in the current band hiatus brought on by musical, personal and familial differences. Bossy older sister Astrid is bored of his schtick and, lo, they are now touring “simultaneously apart – at the same time.”

Otto fancies himself in Ed Sheeran mode. “Any fans of Ed Sheeran in tonight?” he asks hopefully. That will be a resounding “no”. His “inspirational opener” acoustic punk number is unceremoniously interrupted by Astrid, in a fankle with her cowbell, and just in time to drum on his suggestive Stooges-referencing I Want to Be Your Kitten.

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Astrid has her own electro rap anthem, Tasty Snack, a catchy work of genius which rhymes “slowly” with “guacamole”. If that’s not a hit record, what is? Probably not her following one chord gothic folk song. Their parody tunes are genuinely good, their humour warm and silly. They clearly belong together, and we may just have witnessed the reunion tour warm-up with the closing alt.punk number Party Explosion.

Fiona Shepherd

For Better, For Worse ***

C ARTS | C venues | C aquila (Venue 21) until 27 August

Although set during the run-up to the Scottish Independence Referendum, Edinburgh playwright Jill Franklins's new comedic drama is more interested in the personal than the political. It neatly sketches how family dynamics can have an influence on political views and how those, in turn, can deepen resentments and unearth secrets.

Sheila Duncan plays Diane, a widower who's decided to start dating again while her grown-up squabbling children, Mark (Mark O'Neill) and Natalie (Erin Elkin) naturally occupy contrary positions on the big question. Mark favours independence because it was his late father's view while Natalie, who was chucked out of the family home by her dad, is hostile to the thought of change.

While this breezy production from Edinburgh-based PenPal Productions emphasises that the favourite mode of expression for folk on both sides of the debate was frequently shouting at the top of their voice, it's essentially backdrop to the even thornier question of who Diane should go out with.

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Franklin uses the underlying tension of political discussions to unearth some long-buried family secrets which may sound like an allegory too far but Emma Lynne Harley's pacy direction ensures that it's about as lightly handled as you could wish for.

Rory Ford

House of Life ***

Underbelly, Cowgate (Venue 61) until 25 August

Ben Welch and Lawrence Cole, aka Sheep Soup, wanted to create a show which fosters community and makes everyone happy. As the RaveRend and sidekick Trev, they have essentially founded a new church where fluffy feelgood vibes abound and low stakes audience participation fuels the positive vibes, not to mention the looped and loopy mantras which are a key part of the House of Life affirmation process.

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But first, The RaveRend’s glittery entrance in a spangly cassock, setting up his call-and-response worship and slaying with the soulful vocals. Welch uses the language of the evangelical sermon with the stepped approach of the self-love seminar. Audience members/acolytes are invited to share their future aspirations, exorcise their bugbears and get in touch with their body via an alternative heads-shoulders-knees-and-toes refrain, highlighting some lesser sung parts of the body.

It’s all too much for the RaveRend who defrocks himself only to be revived by the love and encouragement of his flock, massing together on the stage. Behaviour breeds behaviour, after all, and while this is all superficial cabaret, the simple acts of kindness on display effect a kind of autosuggestive response. When asked how the show should end, one convert proposed starting an actual cult.

Fiona Shepherd

Mother Mama Mommy **

Greenside @ Infirmary Street (Venue 236) until 19 August

New York-based performers Jane Bruce and Victoria Cook approach motherhood from different eras and perspectives in this modest two-hander. Mother Mama Mommy is bookended by the downhome interactions of two naive bonneted frontier girls, though we spend most time in the present day company of a couple of friends comparing their love lives – one pregnant and struggling with self-worth, the other single and broody with an abusive mother. Their gal pal musings are punctuated with winsome folk pop songs which, like the play, pass the time easily enough.

Fiona Shepherd

Witches **

Greenside @ Infirmary Street (Venue 236) until 26 August

This short, three-handed drama is more polemic than play. Written by Laura Walker, co-directed by Walker and Isabelle Cory, and produced by their student theatre company Turning Point with support of St Andrews University’s Mermaids Fund, Witches follows three women – Joan and her older friends Janet and Isobel – as they plot to murder a man one of them has met online in an act of revenge for centuries of female suffering. It is fuelled by an earnest, undergraduate fire – but it is also distinctly undramatic, with thinly-drawn, over-emphatically acted characters that are little more than mouthpieces. Ambitious but underdeveloped.

Fergus Morgan