Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre reviews: Finding Melania | The Not So Ugly Duckling: A Play for Grownups | Land of Lost Content | #MineToo | BOGEYMAN

The masterful Denise Stephenson's surreal comic creation inspired by former First Lady Melania Trump is an otherworldly treat, says Sally Stott, while Susan Mansfield checks out a thoroughly non-child-friendly Hans Christian Andersen adaptation and David Hepburn reviews the raw if righteous Bogeyman.

Finding Melania ****

Underbelly, Bristo Square (Venue 302), until 29 August

Wearing my professional critic’s metallic red party hat, I and the rest of the audience join ‘Melania’, a surreal comic creation-creature by the masterful Denise Stephenson, who wears her ingenuity as lightly as her numerous wigs, in this charming piece of solo-performed absurdism that finds satire in silent comedy and a strange amount of skewed sense in its oddball-yoga-ball-and-eventually-a-whole-sea-of-balls perspective.

Finding Melania. PIC: Contributed.Finding Melania. PIC: Contributed.
Finding Melania. PIC: Contributed.

With the panicked eyes and solid smile of both a cartoon clown and America’s former first lady, Melania takes silliness to the next level, or at least she tries too with a hostess trolley, but gets defeated when she hits the edge of the very low stage. Luckily there’s a whole audience to help, stroke and feed canape jelly babies to (“my babies”, she cries like a weird cat) in what turns out to be one of the most amiably interactive shows, delivered with a lot of skill and thought through tightly constructed scenes and sharp improvisations, which today includes a brilliant dialogue with a somewhat frosty man at the back who wins the raffle.

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Subtly poking fun at a woman who has chosen to marry Donald Trump and seems to have little to think about except lunch, it’s a show that clearly finds the whole concept of ‘trophy wives’ farcical and, so, has logically turned it into a farce, culminating with us shouting “we are great” as if we’re the Republican Party and getting whacked with the Pilates ball as a reminder of where this kind of behaviour can lead. Even a lump in the wall isn’t just a lump in the wall, such as Stephenson’s skill. Her Melania’s an otherworldly treat to spend an hour with, who eventually leaves us laughing in the dark clutching one of her “early breast implants”, before, still wearing our party hats, we bounce back into the festival outside. Sally Stott

The Not So Ugly Duckling: A Play for Grownups ***

Scottish Storytelling Centre (30), until 27 August

Jo Clifford and Maria MacDonell seem to have dreamed up their new show sitting by the Water of Leith watching the ducks. And ducks - real ones, not the fairy tale variety - are not pleasant, tranquil creatures. One might rape another; offspring might die through neglect, or be deliberately killed.

This is why this is not a children’s show, though the tone of persistent wonderment in the performers’ voices makes it sound like one at times. While they stay close to the beats of the Hans Christian Andersen story, they add a slice of darkness to the misfit duckling’s fortunes: a menacing seagull preaches that “only the strong survive”; friends don’t last; people who should help, don’t. Is it any wonder the duckling no longer wants to be helped?

This savage realism feels at odds, at times, with the play’s gently mythical tone and the warmth which is clearly present between the two performers. Everything else is delicate: Ian Cameron’s direction, Ali Maclaurin’s design, Georgina Macdonell Finlayson soundscape.

However, while the resolution happens too suddenly (the only thing that does in an otherwise sedate production), there is something meaningful here about the hard-wrought journey of becoming not something beautiful, necessarily, but something true. Susan Mansfield

Land of Lost Content ***

Pleasance Courtyard (33), until 29 August

“I love my home town,” says writer and performer Henry Madd at the beginning of this extended piece of spoken-word theatre. He draws on his own coming-of-age experiences to tell a story which will have resonances for those from small towns everywhere.

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A small town is idyllic childhood memories and bored adolescence; it’s seeing your friends scatter or stay and noticing scars you didn’t know they had; it’s coming back, as if you were attached by a piece of elastic, and immediately wanting to leave again.

This two-hander, performed by Madd and Marco Tims, is a mish-mash of moods and poetic styles. Bucolic nostalgia gives way to more troubling realism, with welcome moments of the surreal (like the brown bear landlord of the Flat Earth Inn).

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It’s a challenge keeping all the characters straight as the disjointed narrative weaves backwards and forwards: they’re 14-year-olds looking for a rave, then young adults who crash a car, then suddenly we’re back at the year 7 disco. But Madd nails the small town experience in so many ways, particularly in the lingering sense of disappointment that not even youth is all it’s cracked up to be. Susan Mansfield

#MineToo ***

Greenside @ Infirmary Street (Venue 236), until 27 August

When a personal story forms the basis for a show funded by someone else, who has the right to decide what goes in it? This is the conflict at the centre of Mary Jo Verruto’s imaginative musical play that develops into a weightier discussion about how much power one woman has to share her experiences of childhood abuse, as well as (beautifully) sing and play her own songs, when a male producer-funder, called Andrew, doesn’t want to hear this and doesn’t believe that we do either.

Verruto is a great pianist, who could easily do a classically structured music show, in a way that wouldn’t have the more difficult, somewhat bitty, chopping and changing structure of this piece, as it flits from half-performed songs to half-told stories and is constantly interrupted by Andrew, marching back and forth, through the audience to the stage. But while this might be more polished, it would also be les interesting. A moment where Andrew attempts to justify the benefits of “predators” introduces more uncomfortable subject matter that could be delved into deeper with, for the time being, Verruto’s excellent musical talents feeling more developed than what Andrew dismisses as ‘trauma porn’, the effects of which we get to learn little about. Sally Stott


Pleasance Dome (Venue 23), until 29 August

In a sometimes confusing patchwork quilt of a play, Bogeyman attempts to shine light on the little talked about Haitian Revolution, which saw self-liberated slaves defeat the might of French colonial rule in the late 18th century. Taking place around 40 years before the British abolished slavery, writer-director Emily Aboud’s show identifies it as a key battle in the war for emancipation, long overdue a re-evaluation.

Performed with enthusiasm by four actors, it is kinetic to the point of being hyperactive; a framing device sees London youngsters discussing the legacy of the revolution on a London Underground train, while a mixture of dance, sketch and lecture takes turns to educate, entertain, and even scare. Conjuring up an army of the wronged seeking long-delayed retribution and reparation is particularly effective.

It’s certainly interesting stuff, questioning whether it’s a coincidence that the first nation to successfully repel colonial forces is now best known for zombies and voodoo. The latter, it’s explained, is actually a bastardisation of the religion of Vodou which preaches love. History, it seems, is not always written by the victor.

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Much of the information is communicated well, but some sections feel like a rehearsal for a play yet to be completed, breaking the flow and diverting attention away from the righteous anger at the heart of the story. David Hepburn