Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre reviews: Looking for Me Friend: The Music of Victoria Wood | Out to Lunch | Man of 100 Faces | The Road to Ballina | Flat Pack Furnished
Our latest round-up of theatre reviews includes a warm tribute to the late, great Victoria Wood, a wicked satire of mean-spirited food critics, and what might be the Fringe’s sweatiest show. Words by Rory Ford, Fergus Morgan, Fiona Shepherd and Ben Walters.
Looking for Me Friend: The Music of Victoria Wood ****
Assembly Rooms (Drawing Room) (Venue 20)
Few British entertainers have matched Victoria Wood’s capacity to fuse wickedly precise social observation, endearingly grotesque character work and jauntily catchy musical comedy. Certainly, no one else has written a song rhyming ‘chip shops’ with ‘zip tops’. In this warm, affectionate set, British cabaret doyen Paulus and expert arranger and accompanist Michael Roulston offer a gentle, jaunty tour through Wood’s back catalogue. The songs suit a cabaret setting and the performers’ assurance and amiability bring out their poignancy and heart as well as the carefully observed absurdities and gleefully tongue-twisting lyrics.
Wood’s best remembered numbers are delivered with relish and a wicked glint, from paeans to chippies and shopping to innovative uses of the Woman’s Weekly. There are more plaintive and contemplative pieces too, arcing from adolescent crushes to solitary bereavement. Paulus weaves in personal material about what Wood has meant to him throughout his life, touching on childhood anxiety and family dynamics, performance training and aspiring artistry, body image and sexuality. Her role in his and Roulston’s decade-spanning friendship is celebrated too.
In Wood’s work, matters such as class anxiety and relations between men and women are illuminated through the telling details of quietly simmering discontents or joyous little victories. Paulus pays tribute to her ear for that word that hits just the right note: think Pacamac, viaduct, macaroon. This precision gives life to the comedy but can also feel quite period specific – as, to an extent, are the social and cultural conditions they testify to.
Wood was ahead of her time in some ways but also very much of it, and those who weren’t there first time round might struggle to latch on to certain things. (The show’s heavy use of beloved quotations could baffle them too.) For devotees looking to dust off the coconut matting, however, this is a treat. Ben Walters
Until 28 August
Out to Lunch ***
Underbelly, Bristo Square (Venue 302)
The poison pen of restaurant reviewers is wickedly satirised in this enjoyable new comedy with songs by Hughie Shepherd-Cross. Marcus Tuckwell, food critic for The Telegraph and man both literally and figuratively out to lunch. Increasingly dissolute and unhinged, Marcus encounters an eaterie so awful - Jezzer’s, motto: “Thanks for ignoring TripAdvisor,” - he plots to write a critique so cruel that the chef will kill himself.
Fabian Bevan plays Marcus with all the dials turned up to 11, he’s a truly ghastly comic monster, entitled and angry that he’s not been allowed into the elite company of Giles Coren and Jay Rayner - who both make cleverly staged cameos here. The songs by Nathan Brown are frequently funny and manage the rare trick of actually driving the plot forward and, in one instance, even allow for a scene changes. There’s a marked level of ability in the cast, though, and it’s really only those sung by the terrific Emily Cairns as Marcus’s long-suffering literary agent that are real highlights.
This is good, nasty stuff; well paced and well-written by Shepherd-Brown (Goons) who’s building up quite an impressive body of work and certainly name to look out for in the future. Rory Ford
Until 29 August
Man of 100 Faces ***
Gilded Balloon Teviot (Venue 14)
This is a contender for sweatiest performance of the festival. Solo show Man Of 100 Faces sees writer and performer Saul Boyah take his audience on a rollicking, rollercoaster ride through the life of Sir Paul Dukes - and soak both himself and his front row in perspiration in the process.
Born in 1889, Dukes worked as a secret agent in revolutionary Russia, infiltrating the Bolshevik system on behalf of the British state, smuggling political prisoners out of the country, and generally causing chaos for the Communists. He returned to his home country in 1920, where he was hailed a hero and knighted by King George V.
Boyah’s show is a furious, fast-paced dash through most of that. Directed by Sam Rainer, it sees Boyah act out Dukes’ adventures, playing the spy himself, his secret service superiors, and a host of maniacal Russians along the way. The pacy plotline could do with some shaping – it isn’t exactly easy to follow who is who and what is going on – but it is undoubtedly a barnstorming story nonetheless.
No-one can question Boyah’s commitment, either. He throws himself into it and although he might often mistake vigour and volume for actual acting, he manages to entertain through sheer effort. It is a boisterous performance in a boisterous show. Fergus Morgan
Until 29 August
The Road to Ballina ***
Gilded Balloon at the Museum (Venue 64)
Jakko Jakszyk is best known as singer and multi-instrumentalist in obtuse progressive rock legends King Crimson. The Road to Ballina is a very different proposition to a Crimson performance, being a moving origins story blending spoken word testimony, monochrome animation and a modicum of live music.
Aged five, Jakszyk was informed that he had been adopted. Decades later he decided to trace his birth mother who originally hailed from Ballina in Country Mayo but now lived in Arkansas. But before the reticent Peggy enters the picture, we hear from his adoptive French mother Camille (who was adopted herself) and violent Polish-German father Norbert, both recorded in halting English.
Their unhappy union rubbed off on the neglected Jakko who found refuge in music. Absorbing though his story is, the show could have been fleshed out with more than the tantalizing morsels of music he has composed, including a mournful Celtic-influenced piece for flute and some stormy guitar atmospherics.
Jakszyk leaves much of the narration to his parents but takes up the autobiography on the discovery of full and half-siblings. His American family’s racism provokes a crisis of identity which even a trip to Ballina cannot resolve and the show ends rather abruptly with an air of ambivalence about his patchwork background. Fiona Shepherd
Until 28 August
Flat Pack Furnished Flat ***
Greenside @ Infirmary Street (Venue 236)
Inter generational conflict and affordable Swedish furniture solutions feature heavily in Welsh playwright Emyr Cooper’s warm and often funny new drama. Jenny (Anne Yeomans) waits in her brand new university flat in Edinburgh waiting on a delivery of Ikea furniture with her mum, Susan (Allison Mickelson) who is keen to reconnect with her daughter after a damaging divorce. Tensions, perhaps needless to say, surface but there’s a nice sense of the underlying affection the two share in the early scenes.
This is intelligently paced by being broken up into different scenes as the wait draws on, so the course of the conversations never seems forced. However, both women do seem awfully keen on using flat pack furniture as a metaphor for cultural homogeneity and practically all the dissatisfactions of modern life (don’t expect the Swedish furniture giant to be sponsoring a production of this anytime soon). The emotions, though, never seemed manufactured and there’s a nice late-period Neil Simon feel to the dialogue. It’s the performances that make this, ultimately - their relationship convinces.
Remarkably both actresses are American - although you’d never guess - and due to another performer dropping out, Mickelson had to learn the entire play two days before it premiered in Edinburgh - an extraordinary feat. Rory Ford
Until 27 August