Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre reviews: Half-Empty Glasses | This Moment in America | All By Myself | The Richard Osman Fan Club | Mary, Chris, Mars | Lottie Plachett Took a Hatchet

Explorations of racial consciousness, the American Dream and some deeply weird celebrity worship are to be found in our latest round-up of reviews. Words by Rory Ford, David Pollock and Sally Stott.

Half-Empty Glasses ****

Roundabout @ Summerhall (Venue 26)

Playwright Dipo Baruwa-Etti’s three-handed play is a work of remarkable poise and precision, a coming-of-age tale for young Britons of colour which doesn’t take a simple route out of its examination of raised consciousness and revolutionary thought. Instead, it asks both tough and tender questions about how one might best express their racial identity in society, and who even defines what the best manner of doing this might be. After all, different genders, races, ages and even unique life experiences might cause an individual to view their own path to awakening very differently.

Half-Empty Glasses.Half-Empty Glasses.
Half-Empty Glasses.

Toye (Samuel Tracy) is a schoolboy at a regular London comprehensive school, with an unnatural talent for the piano, expressed in the play as notes being plucked from the air by the actor’s hands dancing around him. He finds music effortlessly easy, unlike the navigation of the rest of his life; his father has just had to leave work due to the onset of Parkinson’s, and the elder man is a nebulous, sad presence in the play, voiced by Tracy’s co-actors in a sighing, bassy monotone into the mic just offstage.

The 16-year-old prodigy is on course for a scholarship to an exclusive music school, but as he matures, so to does his racial consciousness. He begins reading Akala and Reni Eddo-Lodge, and together with his friends Remi (Princess Khumalo) and Asha (Sara Hazemi), he starts a lunchtime history club aimed at introducing all students to black pioneers and figureheads. Yet as trenchcoat-wearing Toye becomes more radical, demanding change at the top in the school, splits occur with his friends.

Remi is a teacher’s daughter, and she sees striving for excellence within the system as the best way of expressing herself. Asha feels excluded from Toye’s revolution, both as a woman and as an Iranian. A hugely thought-provoking and well-performed piece, Half-Empty Glasses finds answers for its own characters at least, and makes a compelling suggestion that the change anyone can best make in society is the one they make from a place of self-knowledge. David Pollock

Until 28 August (not 23, 27)

This Moment in America ***

Underbelly (Venue 61)

This play, explains solo performer Clara Harris, is a work-in-progress. In that respect it's much like her home country, the United States of America, to which it pays engaging testimony. Harris explains after the show that this work-in-progress nature stems from the fact she intends it to be a gathering of oral reflections from Americans of all walks of life. Until that process is billed as being complete, it’s hard to know which parts are fixed and which are temporary.

Harris stands at a desk with laptop, sequencer, lectern and microphone, equipment which she uses to add effects to her voice or change its pitch, or to trigger vocal samples. The earliest segment of the show feels flimsiest, where she triggers sequences of words spoken by recent American Presidents – from Nixon to Clinton, Bush Jr to Trump – and reacts to them largely by facial expression only.

As the piece develops and grows more personal, though, her captivating ability as a vocal performer draws the audience in. Segments reflect on abortion rights and institutional misogyny, and in positively poetic terms of her pride in being Appalachian, a region much-derided as being ‘hillbilly’. At its best it’s a beautifully dream-like representation of the American Dream, and there’s more than enough here to suggest an exciting project when it’s fully completed. Hopefully it returns to Edinburgh. David Pollock

Until 28 August

All By Myself ***

ZOO Playground (Venue 186)

“It’s more important than ever that we look after ourselves,” says the Vlogger on the computer screen to the real-life version of herself, sitting slumped in front of it, despondent, in a blanket.

In a piece reminiscent of the experience many of us no doubt had at some point during lockdown, Jessica Bicket-Barlow’s unnamed, largely silent young woman attempts to regain her sense of sense by helping others to do the same – specifically, by creating DIY videos using the lesser-known tool of vegetables. “I don’t need a supply chain,” her fraught on-screen self proclaims to the on-stage one, who throws herself into constructing increasing ambitious and odd creations.

Watching her strange, intricate work, pretty much in real time, is a reminder of the way that life slowed down during the lockdown and small-scale achievements in the home became dramatic events – as did, sometimes, simply being able to do anything at all.

It’s a piece that, like most of 2020, requires a certain amount of patience from its audience, but as she goes from hugging a bottle of alternative milk to powering her i-phone using an intricately wired collection of potatoes, there’s a sense of achievement through perseverance that’s very relatable, in spite of the surreal setting. Sally Stott

Until 28 August

The Richard Osman Fan Club ***

Paradise in the Vault (Venue 29)

What is the enduring appeal of the lanky Pointless host turned bestselling mystery novelist? More to the point: what is the curious appeal of this deeply weird little show from Edinburgh company Warped Productions?

Little old lady Greta (Vanashee Thapliyal) sits on a park bench taking notes for her forthcoming novel The Sunday Serial Killers Society. Spotting Adam (Steven Finley) she starts up a conversation that mainly centres around her Richard Osman obsession. Adam initially indulges her but is not really a fan of the towering broadcaster and author of The Thursday Murder Club.

At 30 minutes this is more a patiently paced sketch than a play but it's always intruiging. Writer Wendy Lap hooks your interest right from the beginning and it never wanes. It doesn't aim for a laugh-a-minute; rather it's giggly and oddly tense.

Thapliyal's Greta is endearingly irritating with her clownishly screeching voice while Finley's Adam is increasingly funnier the more exasperated he gets in his efforts to silence Greta, perhaps forever. This bizarrely likeable show leaves you keen to see what everyone involved could possibly come up with next. Rory Ford

Until 28 August

Mary, Chris, Mars ***

Summerhall (Venue 26)

Mary (Cho Yeeun, also the playwright and director) and Chris (Ryu Wonjun) are two astronauts who blast off for space at the same time, and who end up through guidance mishaps making an unplanned landing on Mars together.

Here, despite being unable to communicate with one another through their heavy spacesuits, they manage to make a connection and find friendship, which is doubly important to each of them, seeing as it’s Christmas day (say the title out loud to discover the heavy hint that this is a seasonal piece).

Presented as part of this year's Korean Showcase on the Fringe, Trunk Theatre Project's Mary, Chris, Mars is a typical work in the Korean series, in that its design allows for it to be enjoyed with as little reliance on language-based elements as possible.

With small amounts of Korean and English text used, the trajectory of the story is easily readable through the young trio of performers’ (Park Hyeon is credited as ‘Mars’) vivid physical performances and their poignant puppetry with a hand-crafted Martian diorama.

Baek Hahyungki’s atmospheric, live-played electric guitar score also combines funk and post-rock to unique effect. Despite its placing in the theatre section of the Fringe programme, it’s a low-key but evocative treat for all the family. David Pollock

Until 28 August (not 22)

Lottie Plachett Took a Hatchet ***

Assembly Roxy (Venue 139)

The very public trial and acquittal of Lizzie Borden for the murders of her father and stepmother in Massachusetts in 1892 left a deep and lasting impression upon the American psyche.

Don’t expect to be illuminated about any aspect of it, though, by this eye-poppingly bad taste farce from young American company Sweet Nell Productions, which uses the historic story only as a very loose jumping-on point.

The play was written, its text informs us, “by a homosexual” (playwright Justin Elizabeth Sayer, presumably), so we must expect “f*****ry and downstairs feelings of all kinds.” Lauren Lopez is Lottie, a privileged young woman who also happens to be consumed by incestuous desire for her father Josiah, coffinmaker and owned of Plachett’s Caskets, and envy and hate for her “donkey come to life” stepmother Martha, whose occupation is given as “meat-handler”.

Lottie’s brother Pansy, meanwhile, is a puppet child with the head of a sex-obsessed gay man. When the young woman is finally put on trial (by judges and lawyers named things like ‘Ballsack’ and ‘Nutbag’), the real culprit is finally revealed – the homicidal anthropomorphic puppet womb which made her do it.

Frankly, it sounds pretty dreadful when the details are written down after the fact. In person, though, it’s not just a relentlessly dedicated bad taste comedy, but also a cathartic takedown of the mannered period drama of Victorian America. David Pollock

Until 27 August

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