Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre reviews: Please, Feel Free to Share | Americana: A Murder Ballad | Absolutely Probably Unless | Paradise in The Vault | Laurel and Chaplin: Before They Were Famous
Fleabag fans may wish to take note of Rachel Causer’s "blackly, bitingly funny" Please, Feel Free to Share, standout among our latest bumper Fringe theatre round-up. Reviews by David Pollock, Fiona Shepherd and Ariane Branigan.
Please, Feel Free to Share ****
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33), until 29 August (not 15, 16)
At first, playwright Rachel Causer’s tale appears to be that most overdone but sadly still-necessary of vehicles, a critique of social media. Its lead character Alex (Róisín Bevan) is a compulsive Instagrammer, posting for the rush of likes from her many followers, but not a truthful one. She posts photos and tales of hard workouts at the gym because she likes how her bum looks in her new leggings, but she never turns the treadmill on.
Then Alex’s dad dies, and her fussy but concerned co-worker Lillith takes the opportunity to try and nip Alex’s problem drinking in the bud by pressing her towards a bereavement support group. Except Alex feels very little – until she begins to lie, as she does online. Her father was a pilot who died in a light aircraft crash, she says, but she cherished those days he spent teaching her to fly. None of this is true, but sympathetic tears flow and all eyes are on Alex.
She loves it, and Fight Club-style, she begins attending support groups every evening, just for the buzz of the attention. Until Tristan, a fellow group member with secrets of his own, figures out she isn’t being entirely truthful.
Causer’s script is blackly, bitingly funny even through the worst of what follows, as Alex’s amusingly blunt narcissism and bemusement at others’ feelings unfolds with quick but carefully managed pace into a deeper character study of a liar, and what hurt and resentments they might be hiding in their own life to try and turn themselves into a new person without even realising it.
Bevan is excellent too, selling every great line and ounce of repressed, revealed emotion well, and doing some great technical work when she holds two-way conversations as both characters while still somehow addressing the audience too. Causer and Bevan’s partnership as Scatterjam reminds of Vicky Jones’ and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s as DryWrite; this isn’t quite as good as the latter’s opus, but Fleabag fans will love it. David Pollock
Americana: A Murder Ballad ***
Assembly Checkpoint (Venue 322), until 17 Aug
The latest production from the Pepperdine Scotland exchange programme uses one time-honoured American tradition, the murder ballad, to document another less honourable ritual, the school shooting, with the added piquancy of a dedication to a Pepperdine student, Alaina Housley, killed in a 2018 shooting at Thousand Oaks, California.
There is steely commitment from the talented ensemble of thirteen, several of whom provide the live rock, pop and folk soundtrack to this seamless if murky musical which inexorably works its way through a group of numbered drama students caught up in a school shooter drill, who are then named for the slain subjects of murder ballads or teenage tragedy songs and in turn dream themselves driven to gun down their peers.
Jazz hands become hands raised in terror and surrender as even the more traditional musical theatre numbers are shaded with grim lyrics outlining the stew of neurosis, abuse, self-harm, homophobia and mental illness in the background of the troubled individuals who take up arms, a tonal contrast made all the more disturbing by the understanding that these young players are potentially in the eye of the storm themselves. As stated soberly in the programme, there were 351 mass shootings in the US in the first half of 2022 alone. Fiona Shepherd
Absolutely Probably Unless ***
Greenside @ Nicolson Square (Venue 209), until 13 August
The simplicity of this short, two-handed piece of new work from Tsquared theatre company is balanced out by the clear, composed way in which they’ve executed their story. In what looks like a modest contemporary house or apartment, a man lays out a celebration cake with an ornamental wedding topper on it. Keys rattle in the door and a woman enters – his wife, but not for much longer. The pair have divorce papers to sign, and they’ve jointly agreed they’re going to do it after midnight, once it’s the day of their wedding anniversary.
In the meantime, they spend the evening on a sort-of date together in the house they’re about to sell, ordering one of their usual takeaways and drinking what wine they can find. What’s been intended as an amiable parting of the ways can’t help but get heated as they rake over the coals of their life together, but it also proves productive, as they find themselves really talking to one another for the first time in a long time. It’s a well-made extended scene, and while no wheels are reinvented here, two composed and intriguing performances plus a script rich in the relatably observed details of a relationship lend it an air of smooth quality. David Pollock
Rock Bottom ***
Paradise in The Vault (Venue 311), until 13 August
Before the show has even officially begun, Shakespeare’s Nick Bottom (played by Charlie Day) makes his predicament clear: none of his fellow actors have turned up, Pyramus and Thisbe is off, and we’re in uncharted territory. Accordingly, the first half of the show is a kind of structured disorganisation, as Day shepherds us between solo musical numbers and Shakespearian ramblings. If it sounds slightly chaotic, that’s because it is – but our host is so likeable that we’re excited, not apprehensive, to see what comes next.
Day’s energy is infectious, and he is undoubtedly at his best when interacting with the audience –- early on, he encourages us to chime in whenever, and the sincerity with which he does so results in some taking him at his word. Given his comedic timing and charisma, it’s almost a shame that he chooses to take the show in a slower, more contemplative direction for the second half. While his thoughtful soliloquies on happiness and fulfilment add depth to the character, they also have a cooling effect on the raucous energy he has so carefully built up in the first half. One final upbeat dance number would undoubtedly be welcome, but residual humour ensures we still leave in good spirits. Ariane Branigan
Laurel and Chaplin: Before They Were Famous **
theSpaceTriplex - Big (38), until 13 August
The intriguing true story at the heart of Laurel and Chaplin: Before They Were Famous is unfortunately obscured by the show’s tonal inconsistencies and convoluted plot. Not enough time is spent establishing the friendship between Laurel and Chaplin, meaning that – despite the heartfelt and nuanced performances given by our two leading men – the eventual disintegration of their relationship lacks emotional depth. While there are other moving moments in the show, especially those involving Chaplin’s alcoholic mother, an overabundance of drawn-out gags means we do not have the space to reflect on them properly. Although the cast does this serious subject matter justice, the format does not. Ariane Branigan