Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre reviews: Les Dawson: Flying High | The Collie's Shed | Fifteen Minute Break | Baxter vs The Bookies | Earwig | The Tragedy of Macbeth | Carnegie

Jon Culshaw’s nuanced and funny performance as Les Dawson and the emergence of a fresh new voice in Scottish theatre lead our critics’ highlights in this latest round-up. Reviews by Susan Mansfield, Rory Ford, Sally Stott, David Hepburn and David Pollock

Les Dawson: Flying High ****

Assembly George Square, until 28 August

It wouldn’t be hard to profile the audience in the Gordon Aikman Theatre watching Les Dawson: Flying High. They are (like me) old enough to have been watching prime-time TV in the 1980s, old enough to remember Les Dawson, the deadpan delivery, the mother-in-law jokes, the deliberately atrocious piano playing.

Dead Ringers’ Jon Culshaw cuts a very Les-like figure, dapper in a dinner suit and velvet bow tie. But this show is about more than whether or not he has captured the accent, the mannerisms, the delivery (although he has). Written by Tim Whitnall (who penned the Fringe First-winning Morecambe) and directed by Bob Golding (A Man Called Monkhouse), it’s a thoughtful portrait of a man whose career deserves revisiting.

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We meet Les in December 1985, being flown to New York on Concorde to perform at a private party. He’s at the height of his fame, and a few months clear of his first brush with death; his wife Meg is dying of cancer. In this sober context, he reflects on his beginnings and his career, in between running snatches of his act.

All this is expertly stitched together in Whitnall’s fast-paced script, with a giant television backdrop flashing up Hughie Green from the archives, or the Ada and Cissie double-act (both also Culshaw) commenting on the story.

It’s a nuanced portrait of Les, son of a Collyhurst bricklayer, who was accused, in his first gig at Hull Trolleyman’s Club, of “using too many fancy words”. Ever drawn to the literary, this Les quotes Victorian heavyweight Edward Bulwer-Lytton and hankers after being taken seriously as a novelist.

Jon Culshaw as Les Dawson. Pic: Andy HollingworthJon Culshaw as Les Dawson. Pic: Andy Hollingworth
Jon Culshaw as Les Dawson. Pic: Andy Hollingworth

His fame as a comic has been hard won – he was 36 before his big break on Opportunity Knocks – and his attitude to it ambivalent. Culshaw plays him with subtlety and warmth – and plenty of laughs. Susan Mansfield

The Collie's Shed ****

theSpace on North Bridge, until 27 August

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Politics and personalities clash violently in this powerful new drama from Scottish playwright Shelley Middler. Former miners, Billy, Tommy and Charlie, now work in an old colliery shed as engravers. Now retired, they spend painstaking hours engraving keyrings and walking sticks to take to craft fairs. They’re not just keeping busy – and it’s hardly for the money – they still take obvious pleasure in each other’s company. Things change when Glen arrives to take charge of the operation. Glen’s also an ex-miner but the lads haven’t seen him in over 30 years since he left East Lothian. Tommy and Charlie are delighted to see their old pal but Billy isn’t because Glen continued to work at Bilston Glen Colliery while Billy and Tommy were on the picket lines.

Remarkably, Middler’s play is written with great economy; she manages to fit more into 50 minutes here than many other shows could at twice the running time. Flashing back to the time of the strikes we see the characters as young men played by four other actors. It’s to the performers’ – and Middler’s – great credit that each man is instantly identifiable. All the performances are note-perfect and we can clearly see that the actions of who they were echo throughout the decades; attitudes don’t change, they harden. As Charlie says, “I’ll be damned if I’ll let something that happened over 30 years ago affect my life,” but he’s really got no choice in the matter anymore. This is exceptionally played and written with a great deal of insight. Middler – who is only 27 – started writing this in lockdown because she was fascinated by the Men’s Shed her grandfather attended. Clearly inspired by real stories, this remarkable play deserves a much bigger audience and is a terrific Fringe debut for a fresh new voice in Scottish theatre. Rory Ford

Fifteen Minute Break ***

The Mother Superior, until 28 August

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There’s a lot to like about this quartet of stories from English husband-and-wife duo The Tuppenny Bunters. Why Fiona and David Dulake have chosen to name themselves after a derogatory term for Georgian prostitutes is anyone’s guess but their writing style owes more than a little to acknowledged influences Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. Like the Steptoe and Son creators, the Dulakes mine mundane moments for comedy and the four stories take place during breaks in waiting rooms, backstage dressing rooms and the Ink and Paint department at a world-famous studio lot in Burbank, California. All the stories are consistently engaging, although the third “Hellzapoppins” – a notably faster-paced tale of stressed-out Hollywood songwriters set in 1963 – is a real highlight. The Dulakes play co-workers, partners, strangers and – remarkably – blood relatives in the last vignette. They share a very natural comic chemistry – perhaps unsurprisingly as the couple are celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary this month. This is a solid Fringe debut and a good excuse to escape the festival blast radius for an enjoyable hour. Hopefully the Dulakes will be back to celebrate their 11th wedding anniversary. Rory Ford

Baxter vs The Bookies ***

Gilded Balloon Teviot, until 28 August

Anyone who enjoys a flutter on the horses will be right at home with actor Andy Linden’s one-man show in which he adapts four stories from Roy Granville’s book of the same name. Baxter is a horse racing tipster who runs an old-fashioned telephone tipping line, but his fortunes are mixed at best, and his failures make the best stories.

There’s the day he loses thousands when he passes out on painkillers for toothache. And the account about the postman who delivers him sure-fire winners from his dreams was never going to end well. Most poignant is the story of love interest Beverley Stokes, who picks winners without exception, which might be one reason she doesn’t pick Baxter.

Linden wears his character with ease, capturing Baxter’s philosophical attitude and dry humour, even if his conspiratorial murmur struggles at times to rise above the sound of the air conditioning in Teviot’s Wee Room. Baxter’s world is conveyed knowledgeably and authentically, but it might be somewhat lost on those with no interest in horse racing. Susan Mansfield

Earwig ***

Assembly Rooms, until 27 August

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Marigold’s love of beetles and her desire to be heard, both as a deaf woman and an entomologist, is given a fun, flapper-infused production in this imaginative and unusual little play. Full of Charleston-style dance routines and references to the silent movie era, it is delivered with passion and polish by writer/performer Laura Crow, Ben Hynes and Samantha Vaughan. Like an offbeat Downton Abbey – where Captain Crawley has been replaced by creepy crawlies – it captures the rigid social structures and gender roles of 1927, as well as the way Marigold is increasingly undermined by her husband Nicolas, who constantly refers to her “defects”. Seeking solace from her mother, but finding escape through a woman she meets in the library, Marigold must eventually decide whether or not she wants to be a ‘specimen’ in someone else’s studies.

The ability of cabaret to challenge conformity is mimicked by Marigold’s journey to achieve her dreams at The Underground Society of Wings, Stings and Other Things, before finally and gloriously rejecting Nicholas’s control through the power of sign language. While the exploration of different forms of communication at a time when many were stifled could be explored further, this is an entertaining genre mash-up for fans of period dramas with or without a twist. Sally Stott

The Tragedy of Macbeth ***

Assembly Roxy, until 29 August

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If you’re going to put on a production of Macbeth at the world’s largest arts festival you need something pretty special to distinguish yourself from the hundreds of versions that have come before. In using a combination of physical theatre, puppetry and music to tell the well-trodden story on a set that looks like it’s about to be plastered by eight clay-covered actors moonlighting as decorators, Flabbergast Theatre’s Scottish play certainly has a USP.

The majority of the action sticks pretty closely to the text, even if the actors are jiving, jerking and playing percussion while delivering soliloquies. The physical theatre element comes into its own portraying the changing relationship between Macbeth and his ambitious wife, seductive tactility becoming ever more destructive, while the appearance of Banquo’s ghost at a feast the audience is invited to is a bloody delight.

In case you thought they were taking it a bit seriously, any pomposity is punctured by a fool appearing between acts to mock the “avant-garde” content. It’s a welcome comic interlude, but means the rushed plot has to be condensed even further into the too-short 90-minute running time.

It’s a fun experience but by the end it feels as messy as the wine, paint and clay splattered dust sheets that line the stage. David Hepburn

Carnegie ***

Panmure House, until 28 August

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Andrew Carnegie, as his one-line biography near the beginning of the text tells us, “became the richest man in the world, chose to meddle in world affairs and got his fingers burnt.” Staged at Panmure House just off the Royal Mile, former home of Adam Smith and now a museum to his life and works, this show about one of the most famous and enigmatic figures in the history of international capital was in the right place for such a story.

Under the direction of Andy Corelli, John Yule’s monologue text is played with a searching energy by actor Ian Sexon, who makes full use of the long, rectangular in-the-round space for his performance, but with a nice balance for the more reflective points where he pulls up in his armchair or by the window. It’s a straight biographical piece of Andrew Carnegie, who went from humble beginnings across the Forth in Dunfermline to industrial fame and fortune in America, before giving his fortune away.

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Yet Carnegie was a multi-faceted historical figure, and this is also captured vividly. Coaxed to invest a little money in the railroads, the dividend he earned was the first money he hadn’t physically worked for, and the experience turned him into a capitalist. His love of profit was tempered by a respect for his workers which his underlings didn’t always stick to, and a conviction that “the evolutionary process is best served by ending all wars,” but in his efforts to do so, he and the establishment finally parted ways. David Pollock