Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre reviews: Svengali | Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow | Blink and You’ll Miss It | The Life of Riley | TV Apocalypse | Running with Ghosts

Possession and control are dissected in a powerful new solo play by Eve Nicol, while the theatre company from Tower Hamlets’ Mulberry School for Girls provide two clever, compassionate shows. Reviews by Joyce McMillan, Susan Mansfield, Fiona Shepherd, David Pollock and Katie Hawthorne

Svengali ****

Pleasance Courtyard, until 28 August

Coercive control is a new phrase for an old phenomenon, and although George du Maurier’s novel Trilby was published in 1885, it remains one of the world’s most powerful stories about the desire – mainly of men – to exercise absolute control over the thoughts and activities of a partner or protégé.

It’s on du Maurier’s story of a once-wild young singer hypnotised into stardom by her sinister manager that Scottish playwright Eve Nicol bases her new one-hour monologue Svengali, presented on the Fringe by the Pleasance and Pitlochry Festival Theatre as part of the new Edinburgh National Partnerships programme. Here, though, the setting is the fiercely competitive world of 21st-century championship tennis. Young Trilby, a wild girl with no previous experience of the game, is groomed into becoming a grand slam winner by a coach with a chilling ideology of infinite human perfectibility, and an obsession with Trilby that is both intensely sexual and weirdly sublimated into an even more powerful kind of possession and dominance.

Hide Ad

This Svengali figure is the play’s only speaker, and the twist in Nicol’s monologue is that he is played by rising star Scottish actress Chloe-Ann Tylor, in a steely performance that reverberates and disturbs, in Robbie Gordon’s beautifully pitched staging. The story is familiar, of course, both from its deep cultural context – Trilby herself mentions Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, the great spin-off story from the Trilby myth – and from its troubling contemporary resonances across the world of sport, where ever more stories of the abuse of young athletes by coercive coaches seem to emerge weekly.

In the end, though, it’s the wild streak of poetry in Nicol’s text that fairly takes the breath away, and the stunning quality of Tylor’s performance, as a young woman entering fully into the mind of a macho man driven by the need to dominate and control, and blazing her way through it, like a star. Joyce McMillan

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow ***

Chloe-Ann Tylor in Eve Nicol's Svengali PIC: Andy CatlinChloe-Ann Tylor in Eve Nicol's Svengali PIC: Andy Catlin
Chloe-Ann Tylor in Eve Nicol's Svengali PIC: Andy Catlin

theSpace @ Surgeons Hall, until 13 August

The theatre company from the Mulberry School for Girls, an all-female comprehensive in Tower Hamlets, are regulars on the Fringe, winning a Fringe First for their 2009 production The Unravelling. This year, their play is devised by the company and directed by drama teacher Alison Hargreaves, spinning off Macbeth to create a lively, heart-warming comedy.

The three witches (played with verve by Munirah Ahmed, Anamika Mazumder and Jannat Ali) get the recipe wrong for their potion and find themselves time-travelling to London in 2022. To get home they need the right ingredients, which include greed and betrayal, and they think they’ll get both by disrupting the lives of three friends at a neighbouring school. Can Ayesha, Sal and Maryam – with the help of their younger sisters – resist the witches’ meddling and save their friendship?

Hide Ad

The play reflects the hopes and ambitions of the girls themselves, and there are consistently strong performances from the ensemble cast of nine 14- to 17-year-olds. It’s clever, witty and never dull, even for a moment. It’s a pleasure to see them enjoying themselves on the Fringe. Susan Mansfield

Blink and You’ll Miss It **

theSpace @ Symposium Hall, until 13 Aug

Erstwhile boy band member Terry Geo plays “theatre famous” actor Jake in his monologue about an interracial gay couple fighting prejudice on two fronts. At first, Jake’s recollection of his budding relationship with Kenyan asylum seeker Akida plays out like a ‘remember-that-time?’ dinner-party anecdote, but it takes a darker turn around Akida’s abusive back story and eventual fate. However, Geo’s writing and performance are more suited to the light than the shade of the narrative, such that the more horrific elements and serious themes of the show don’t carry the emotional weight that they merit. Fiona Shepherd

The Life of Riley **

C place, until 14 August

Hide Ad

A young man named Riley has taken himself off to live as a meditating recluse in a cave, but it turns out even this is beyond his skill. Already he’s failed at dating, at education, at work, as a teacher and as an actor. Young performer Louis Cavalier, on the other hand, has done a decent job of showcasing his skills here, playing a distinctive cast of characters and selling some funny lines well. The story and its lead character are light and insubstantial, and the piece doesn’t do enough to make us care, but its creator’s preparation and enthusiasm transmit well. David Pollock

TV Apocalypse **

theSpace on North Bridge, until 13 August

Lesbian couple Jamie and Sam are watching TV when a public service broadcast announces an asteroid strike: in seven days’ time the human race will be extinct. This two-hander by writer and director Alex Curry, for student company End of the World Theatre at the University of East Anglia, asks big questions about how this might affect society in general, and queer people in particular. While the performances are solid and the concept intriguing, the tone of kitchen-sink realism feels at odds with the speculative, sci-fi premise. Susan Mansfield

Running with Ghosts ***

theSpaceTriplex, until 13 August

When you run, there’s a brief moment of weightlessness. For the members of a newly founded Thameside running club, during the first Covid lockdown, it’s the closest thing to flying. This new play from Tower Hamlets’ Mulberry Theatre Company jogs side by side with four extremely different women – PE teacher Aniqa, doctor Tanya, fashion student Maya and beat copper Neha – as they seek to escape in that split-second of suspension.

Written and directed by Afsana Begum and Fin Kennedy, Running with Ghosts revolves around the growing camaraderie between the joggers. Friction between Aniqa and Maya uncovers a story of adoption, while Tanya and Neha share conflicted feelings about their public-sector jobs during the pandemic. Acted with compassion, these conversations are touching and believable, and the play almost doesn’t need its metaphysical element – ghostly strangers who offer historical stories of strength and rebellion. Structurally a little repetitive, Running with Ghosts loses momentum in the final mile, and an emotional concluding twist doesn’t hold the power it deserves. Still, it remains a moving tribute to community, and the power of helping each other, despite everything, to put one foot in front of the other. Katie Hawthorne