Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre reviews: Sap | The Great Almighty Gill | A Eulogy for Roman | The Woman He Lived With | Heat Museum | Some Other Mirror | 7 Seventeen-Year-Olds in a Screwed-Up World | Loveless | Take it Away, Cheryl | Beneath the Waters
A genre-blending psychological thriller with mythic roots, an evocative story about a complex father-son relationship and a warm and funny eulogy for a man you've never met are the pick of our latest bunch of Fringe theatre reviews. Words by Rory Ford, Susan Mansfield, Katie Hawthorne, Fiona Shepherd and Ariane Branigan.
ROUNDABOUT @ Summerhall (Venue 26), until 28 August
A white lie leads to a green awakening in this thoroughly enjoyable new psychological thriller with mythic roots. It's tempting to view this as a - completely unintended - companion piece to Alex Garland's recent movie Men with which it shares somewhat similar themes. This is rather underscored by the fact that Rebecca Banatatvala plays all the supporting parts - both men and women - to Jessica Clark's unnamed protagonist. Clark's character works at a women's aid charity, has slept with more men than women but "that's just a numbers game - there's more straight men than gay women". However, something inside of her shifts when she meets her "Wonder Woman" at a lesbian bar - maybe she is one thing rather than another, or maybe she's something else entirely. What could it possibly hurt if you don't give up absolutely everything about your past as you embark on a new relationship? But if you plant a seed like that, what will grow from it?
Rafaella Marcus' script is a remarkably constructed piece of work, it starts out fresh and funny, an unhurried contemporary romantic comedy but gradually tightens its coils of unease until you're caught in a place you fear there may be no escape from.
The show is aided immeasurably by two stellar performances. Clark's rapport with the audience is remarkable as she leads us through her dating adventures and subsequent identity crisis. Banatatvala slips effortlessly from character to character, gender to gender without recourse to clunky costume change.
Sap has a funny/creepy tone unique to itself. Director Jessica Lazar's inventive production is almost insidiously smooth, it can shift from breezy to sinister before you realise there's been a gear change and you end up somewhere quite unexpected. It's exceptionally rare to encounter something that blends genres so skilfully - and enjoyably - as this. Rory Ford
The Great Almighty Gill ****
Assembly George Square (Venue 8), until 29 August
Actor Daniel Hoffman-Gill lost his father - Dave Gill, the Great Almighty Gill - in 2015. Hoffman-Gill conducted his funeral and wrote his eulogy, which he delivers to us in the first half of this show along with music by Elton John and Elvis. But what does it mean to give a loving, warm-hearted eulogy for a man with whom you had a difficult relationship? “Are you ready?” the funeral director, the amusingly name Mr Fuggle, asks Daniel as proceedings begin. He replies: “I was born ready.”
However, after re-run of the funeral service, Hoffman-Gill changes tack. Now, he gives us Dave Gill’s version of his life: borstal in his teens for stealing cars, booted out of the army after going AWOL to visit his various girlfriends, a lifetime of ducking and diving, dealing in cars, antiques and occasionally drugs. He cheerfully admits he hasn’t paid taxes since 1972.
He was no lovable rogue either, having little regard for kids in general and his actor son in particular, but Hoffman-Gill plays him with frankness and compassion - and just a little gratuitous lip-synching to Elvis. There is real pathos when the Great Almighty Gill realises he is lost in a relative’s house, the beginning - at 72 - of his battle with dementia. His portrayal of the illness is both tender and unflinching.
What feels missing is a sense of the father-son relationship which would join the two halves of the play: what Dave was like to grow up with, how their relationship changed during his illness. Instead, Angharad Jones directs a play of two distinct halves, but one which will surely strike a chord with anyone who knows the complexities of celebrating a life. Susan Mansfield
A Eulogy for Roman ****
theSpace on North Bridge (Venue 36), until 20 August
This informal, warm and funny eulogy for a man you've never met - and will really never know - is the most delightful surprise and makes for the perfect way to start your day. It's hosted by the American performer Brendan George in memory of his best friend, Roman, whose urn is also present. Roman always wanted to visit Scotland to look for the Loch Ness monster but never made the trip - at least his mortal remains finally have. The trip to Scotland was just one item on a list of 100 “life points" - a bucket list compiled by Brendan and Roman that they never got around to completing together.
Perhaps you'd like to help Brendan complete this list? Yes, that does mean audience participation and even if that doesn't sound like your sort of thing, you'll be really surprised just what you're willing to do to help Brendan complete this list.
The audience is just as much a part of this show as Brendan but it's a tribute to his personality - a faintly fragile, vaguely camp neurotic nervous energy - that opens us up to him.
In some ways this is reminiscent of Iain Reid's novel "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" - although not nearly as dark. Shared memories and events cross paths and coalesce to form a bigger, complex picture. There's nothing joyous in a life lost too soon but the communal nature of suggesting songs for a feelgood playlist or sharing stories is genuinely life-affirming. As written by George and ingeniously conceived and directed in a completely naturalistic fashion by Peter Chaney, this appears improvised - and to some degree certainly is - but is actually much more complex than it initially appears. It's a lovely warm hug of a show that will leave you with a big sloppy smile on your face and a tear in your eye. Rory Ford
The Woman He Lived With **
Shout - Scottish Music Centre @ 111 Holyrood Road (Venue 587), until 19 August
If you want see a demonstration of how brave some actors can be then, by all means, see this solo show about Helen McDougal, the wife of William Burke, tried as an accomplice for the last Burke and Hare murder. Irish actress Sarah Maria Lafferty has to cope with the most ill-thought out venue staging imaginable. Firstly, the stage is set right next to the front door so there’s a fairly steady stream of people traffic. Secondly, the toweringly high ceiling means the acoustics are awful. This could have been far more successfully staged on the upper level - which was completely empty. If any of this fazes Lafferty then it doesn’t show but even Sir Ian McKellen would struggle to sell an hour-long dramatic monologue in a pub doorway. As for the script itself; it’s impossible to judge, watching this was like trying to read a novel on a very old mobile phone - you get the gist of the story and certain passages may strike you as interesting but it’s far from ideal. Rory Ford
Heat Museum ***
Zoo Playground (Venue 186), until 20 August
A man waits for rain in Dream Pavilion’s Heat Museum. He’s seeking release from stifling heartache and glassy dissociation during the final days of an historic heatwave – apt timing, given this summer’s apocalyptic temperatures. Ludmilla Gilles’ fractured, languid choreography captures the claustrophobia of long, sticky days and is deftly performed by Liam Hill, who begins the piece draped artfully over an icebox. His movements give vital body to a nameless character’s internal monologue (written by creator and director James Allen) and paints a vivid picture of a man trying to get back to himself. Cynical and wry, with hints of Holden Caulfield, the text is monotonously self-serious, and jaded jokes about dating apps feel less fresh than the otherwise sleek sound design deserves.
Heat Museum began life as a sound piece, and it invites a woozy back-and-forth between our protagonist’s past and present, while Orwellian news bulletins butt in with end-of-days temperature reports. It benefits from a human touch, though: Hill wears the heat on his body, standing cowed on commuter transport and buckling under the condensation from a can of Tennents. One night on a sweaty dance floor jolts us – and our protagonist – out of the fug, showing that his worldview hasn’t always been so cold. Katie Hawthorne
Some Other Mirror **
Pianodrome at the Old Royal High (Venue 391), until 12 Aug
Is there something about Pianodrome’s in-the-round set-up that encourages sharing? Laurie Owen prefaces his show by informally canvassing Fringe recommendations from his audience before revealing his own story as a trans man with more questions than answers on the journey to self-acceptance. This unfolds largely as a conversation with his former female self which has its insightful moments but is executed in rudimentary style. Applying his daily testosterone gel is a simple yet bold visual gambit and his demonstration of the physiology behind lowering his voice has some theatrical mileage but still doesn’t amount to much of a show. Fiona Shepherd
7 Seventeen-Year-Olds in a Screwed-Up World **
C ARTS | C venues | C cubed - main space (Venue 50), until 13 August
Despite Square Pegs' young cast convincingly portraying the group dynamic of seven bickering teenagers waiting in neverending limbo, the individual characters themselves remain two-dimensional. The opaqueness of the subject matter compounds this issue; while vague hints are dropped throughout the show, it is only at the very end that we learn our characters are actually refugees, trapped in the UK’s punishing immigration system. Although this development has the potential to be powerful, the piece unfortunately ends before we can properly process the contrast between the lighthearted teenage angst espoused throughout the majority of the show and grim reality faced by our protagonists. Ariane Branigan
theSpace on the Mile (Venue 39), until 13 August
This unfortunate drama offers a range of performances from assured to inept before descending into farce. Two ageing porn stars (played by actors in their early twenties) meet for one last shoot before retirement. Then something awful - and frankly unbelievable - happens and people have to act very cross with each other which causes large swathes of the audience to crease up as they stifle their inadvertent laughter. If the Bloody Hell (really) Theatre Company embraced the ludicrous aspects of their script this might pass as a Garth Marenghi tribute but otherwise this is a bust. Rory Ford
Take it Away, Cheryl ***
Greenside @ Infirmary Street - Mint Studio (Venue 236), until 13 August
Cheryl (played by Kait Warner) is proudly following in the footsteps of her female relatives by staffing a carnival kissing booth - only instead of kisses, she’s providing the local population with life-affirming advice and a sympathetic ear. Through some not-so-veiled allusions to emotional labour and guilt over past mistakes, we see the inner conflict of someone who desperately wants to help others, even if it means their own health and boundaries suffer. After a particularly pushy customer butts into her booth, things quickly start to spiral out of control; Cheryl is eventually offered a literal deal with the devil, providing she can make the ultimate sacrifice.
The beginning of Take It Away, Cheryl is a little slow to get going, due in part to the therapy-like rhythm of Cheryl’s conversations with her customers (which include some of us in the audience). However, the latter half takes a pleasantly unexpected turn, culminating in silly voices and supernatural possessions galore. And although the ending feels slightly abrupt, especially after such intense paranormal shenanigans, it’s by no means unsatisfying. You can’t help but root for Cheryl - and, in doing so, you also end up rooting for yourself. Ariane Branigan
Beneath the Waters *
Paradise in Augustines (Venue 152), until 13 August
There's some decent - if mannered - performances in this piecemeal account of the fictional murder of a mother of three in her home but it needs to be ruthlessly editing. A seemingly endless succession of actors deliver long, rambling monologues to ever decreasing returns. The most chilling aspect of the production is the gnawing dread in the pit of your stomach as yet another performer takes the stage as the show drags way past its advertised running time. It’s probably fair to say that writer-director Kimberley Taylor is not without talent, however in this instance it has been badly misapplied. Rory Ford