Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre reviews: Pauline | Happy Place | Harvey Greenfield is Getting Married | The Changeling Girl | Messiah

Interweaving the voices of three women across three generations, Sophie Bentinck’s Pauline is a compelling patchwork tale of loss and memory and the standout from our latest batch of Fringe theatre reviews. Words by Susan Mansfield, David Pollock and Sally Stott.

Pauline. Pic: Alex Brenner.
Pauline. Pic: Alex Brenner.

Pauline ****

Pleasance Courtyard (33), until 29 August

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Pauline was Sophie Bentinck’s grandmother, an “eccentric pisshead penniless Countess” who loved Guinness and champagne. She committed suicide in 1967, taking an overdose of pills. Bentinck wrote this play after finding her diaries and suicide note, interweaving the voices of three women across generations: Pauline, her daughter Anna (Bentinck’s mother, now suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease) and Bentinck herself.

Pauline’s clear, immediate voice jumps out from the pages of her diaries, a colourful woman and a good writer, bored and depressed with 1950s domesticity while her husband Henry has an affair. She tries to drown her sorrows; a doctor prescribes pills. Anna, a voice actress, is represented in recordings of her voice, at one point questioning Bentinck earnestly about whether or not this is her story to tell. These segments are some of the most poignant as they were recorded before degenerative disease claimed her memory.

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In this mix, Bentinck’s own teenage diaries are suitably cringeworthy, and she winces as she reads her own words at 13, in love for the first time and trying to sound “streetsy”. It’s unclear the part these play in the unfolding drama, other than to illustrate how much has changed for women in 60 years. Diaries and interviews are not inherently theatrical, and there are times when this feels a little like watching a radio play being recorded. Bentinck’s tendency to speak asides to her tech team breaks the flow and distracts from the story. And if it feels like there’s more to tell, there is: a memoir is in progress.

But this episodic patchwork of voices which moves backwards and forwards through time is still compelling, redolent with different kinds of loss and the importance of telling stories and keeping memories alive. Susan Mansfield

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Happy Place ***

Underbelly (Venue 61), until 28 August

In a dystopian future, everyone can find their own special happy place for a price. In one of the privately-owned simulation booths dotted around the UK’s towns and cities, that is, where customers with credit can find a holographic world of their own making, where they can be or do whatever they want. “Happy Place, because it's all about you,” runs the slogan. “Discounts for riot police.”

Dylan is one of these users, a pub-gigging guitarist who becomes an arena rock star in his Happy Place (there’s a nice little puppet version of the arena here, just to show what’s happening inside his head and in ‘Happy Place’ reality). Except one day, just before a show, the Happy Place across the road from the pub which he uses to get in the zone before a show is broken.

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Together with the service engineer who’s been sent to fix it, they descends into the broken booth, and discover two other users who shouldn’t be there; Tamsin, a convicted criminal whose happy place is in a mountain hut enjoying chai and yoga, and Grangor (aka Ned), whose role-playing fantasy world threatens to end their lives unless they can escape. Westworld this piece from Leeds-based company Forget About the Dog isn’t; instead it’s a light, well-played and perfectly charming comedy-drama. David Pollock

Harvey Greenfield is Getting Married ***

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Paradise in Augustines (Venue 152), until 28 August

There are no number of stars that can describe spending an hour with the explosive bundle of nervous energy that is Harvey Greenfield AKA Paul Richards. In the follow-up to his 2019 show Harvey Greenfield is Running Late, we re-join Harvey, in 2020, where he’s about to get married. This time, hot on his heels is, you guessed it, the lockdown. With the countdown to his big day turning into a count up to will-it-won’t-ever-happen, Harvey frantically responds to ever-changing government guidelines, overseen by his archetypically stressed out, long suffering girlfriend soon-to-be wife – a less original character than Harvey – but apparently her real-life alter-ego is coming to see the show on Friday, so maybe he’s decided to play it safe.

Since the previous show, Harvey/ Richards has got what sounds like a really exciting film deal, with a starry cast that was at one point potentially going to include Stephen Merchant, but Richards is now playing the title role – and, really, it’s impossible to imagine anyone doing it better. The show concludes, like the lockdowns, rather suddenly. It feels smaller than Harvey’s original outing, perhaps influenced by Richards’ newfound work for the screen. Nevertheless, it’s great to catch up with him through a chat at the end that is a fascinating continuation of an ongoing on-stage off-stage saga. Sally Stott

The Changeling Girl ***

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theSpace on North Bridge (Venue 36), until 27 August

There’s a wonderful idea at the core of Bristol Drama Society’s new production, which celebrates neurodivergence on and offstage. Every performance is a relaxed one, and fidget toys are provided. Onstage, the story tells of a girl named Agnes living in medieval England, whose undiagnosed autism is far beyond the understanding of her father Tobias and the others in her village, especially the local healer woman.

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Instead her personality marks her out as a figure of suspicion, and the community comes to suspect she’s a changeling; a child replaced as a baby by one of the fairy folk. The stolen child is out there somewhere, goes the legend, and it's important its family doesn’t allow the presence of this intruder to tear them apart. Rather than undergo the trial by fire required to reveal her innocence or guilt, Agnes escapes to the forest, where she meets another banished boy named Finian.

The delivery is confident and measured, although it bears the raw tone of a young company trying to do a reasonable job, rather than providing anything truly special. Yet the idea does a lot of the hard work, examining not just how neurodivergence might have been viewed at a time when superstition was the only science there was, but also conjuring a capable ‘enemy within’ story which serves as political allegory for any number of marginalised groups attacked out of fear or scapegoating. David Pollock

Messiah ***

Underbelly Bristo Square (Venue 302), until 27 August

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On one hand, Fego Theatre Company’s version of Steven Berkoff’s 2003 play Messiah: Scenes from a Crucifixion is operating at an advantage, because it has a powerful and creative text designed for intense monologue performance to work from. On the other, it uses a company whose acting talents are variable, and who are in some places unable to recreate the intensity and power of Berkoff’s work – not that doing so is an easy job for any performer.

The play is presented here as a four-hander, with each actor taking multiple roles, and with a Berkoffian air of onstage minimalism surrounding the text. The piece tells of the events preceding the crucifixion of Jesus, but with an imagined contemporary eye upon the characters which serves to enlighten as to their original motives. Pontius Pilate admires and is perhaps even jealous of Christ’s charisma and good looks. Christ’s mother Mary relates the story of His conception in such a way as to suggest she might be mentally ill. Judas Iscariot is a bitter and ultimately broken figure.

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Most intriguing of all, Rosie Skuse’s female Jesus is a cigarette-puffing performer, one who seeks to build up their own cultish myth by enduring torture and faking their own resurrection. On the whole, it does enough to get Berkoff’s point across. David Pollock