Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre reviews: The Anniversary | Blanket Ban | Winston and David | A Young Girl’s Guide to Madness | Lighthouse | Billy Boy

A delirious 50th anniversary party, a passionate denunciation of Malta’s anti-abortion stance and the bromance between two political heavyweights all feature in our latest round-up of Fringe theatre. Reviews by Ben Walters, Joyce McMillan, Rory Ford, Sally Stott and David Pollock

The Anniversary ****

Pleasance Dome (KingDome) (Venue 23), until 28 August (not 24)

Organising a 50th wedding anniversary party inevitably comes with its challenges but this delirious exercise in grotesque cartoon slapstick, puppetry and mime makes it seem like a circle of hell. Performed by Clare Bartholomew and Daniel Tobias – who created it with director Peter Haughton – The Anniversary has been variously billed as Beckett meets Wallace & Gromit and Mr Bean meets The Shining – though you might also think of it as Abigail’s Party meets Itchy and Scratchy, with dashes of Spymonkey and early League of Gentlemen thrown in for good measure.

Clare Bartholomew and Daniel Tobias in The AnniversaryClare Bartholomew and Daniel Tobias in The Anniversary
Clare Bartholomew and Daniel Tobias in The Anniversary
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Bartholomew and Tobias are Barb and Jim, found in their cutely stylised home on the morning of the party in question. They’re not overflowing with affection but there’s no indication of how calamitous the day’s events, and their treatment of each other, are about to get. Expertly played in broad brushstrokes, using voices but few discernible words, the duo begin with attempts at decoration and catering but things degenerate from there, testing emotional and bodily function (not to mention the welfare of nearby animal life) to extremes.

Fringe regulars might know Bartholomew and Tobias, who are Australian, as tongue-in-cheek German punk-rock siblings Die Roten Punkte and there’s a similar dynamic at play here. She sets the terms, he goes along with it (and over the course of the tumultuous events the tables turn, turn back then get upended altogether). As with Die Roten Punkte, music is key: given the minimal dialogue, the score is crucial to tone and narrative, with instrumental effects inventively ranging from harpsichord to Theremin to convey moods swinging from suburban ennui to visceral terror. There’s some fab non-verbal singing too.

The whole thing careers along with preposterous momentum, as well as plenty of knowing winks, and a sense that anything could happen – especially to the vol-au-vents. Ben Walters

Blanket Ban ***

Underbelly Cowgate (Venue 61), until 28 August

In a world where the backlash against women’s hard-won right to abortion is now well under way, Malta stands out, as an island nation that despite its EU membership – and liberal laws in other areas, such as gay and trans rights – has never permitted the termination of pregnancy on any grounds, even when the life of the woman is under severe threat.

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In a vivid and informative hour, writer-performers Davinia Hamilton and Marta Vella offer us a passionate indictment of these restrictive laws. This show swerves – sometimes wildly – from austere documentary fact-finding (as they interview various experts and campaigners on film) through heartbreaking dramatisations of the real-life experience of desperate Maltese women (as they leave the country for abortions, or try, during lockdown, to order abortion pills on the internet without being found out) and occasional flights of symbolic fantasy in which, dressed in wild and astonishing costumes, they embody Malta’s passionate attachment to the Catholic faith, or the goddess of the sea that dominates island life.

And while it’s true that this collage of different performance styles does not always work, there’s no denying the huge importance of the case for women’s bodily autonomy being made here, with love and anger, and – despite everything – a glorious Maltese sense of fun. Joyce McMillan

Winston and David ***

Underbelly, Bristo Square (Venue 302), until 29 August

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This paints a very warm and sentimental portrait of the relationship between David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. In this case the sentiment is perfectly understandable as it marks the debut play of Robert Lloyd George, great grandson of the former Prime Minister. Essentially it is a dramatisation of Lloyd George’s book of the same name and while it certainly packs a great deal of “the march of events,” to use Churchill’s phrase, it handles the personal rather better than the political. Geraint Rhys is convincingly authoritative as “LG” (as he’s affectionately known here) and Peter Swales’s performance as Winston suggests he’s got a bright future as go-to casting for playing Boris Johnson in future productions.

However, it’s Alexandra Donnachie as LG’s mistress and eventual wife, Frances Stevenson – “the invisible woman,” who also acts as our narrator – that gives this show its heart. Perhaps predictably the questionable nature of LG carrying on a long-term clandestine affair with a woman who was his eldest daughter’s best friend goes largely unexamined but Lloyd George never whitewashes his great grandfather’s conduct. This covers a lot of major historical events and while the dialogue does get a bit ITV costume drama at times (“What shall we do about Palestine?”) it is still an entertaining history lesson. Rory Ford

A Young Girl’s Guide to Madness ***

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

Based upon the real-life stories of her friend group, writer/performer Charlotte Ellis creates a sensitive character study of a young girl in Leeds. In her towelling two-piece tracksuit, she’s a friendly, down-to-earth figure who narrates her Alan Bennett-style monologue with the cosy mood of a nice cup of tea in the hotel where the play takes place – not that it’s all easy listening.

From the excitement-turned-sadness of unrequited love for an older man, to auditioning to study drama and being looked down upon because she doesn’t have four A* exam results, she has her struggles. Things take a darker turn when she describes a sexual assault by a man in a car, who, with the help of an older woman, she manages to escape. The way she blames herself for this, for being too “nice” and smiling too much – the very characteristics that help make this performance engaging – is heartbreaking.

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Turning 18, she describes how it is now “my responsibility to look after myself,” and while she’s an independent, quietly strong character, the reality that she should not have to do this is left unsaid but ever-present in this beautifully written and performed one-woman show. Sally Stott

Lighthouse ***

Greenside @ Infirmary Street (Venue 236), until 27 August

Rock solid performances and a great sense of atmosphere go a long way to illuminate Justin Cartledge’s new murder mystery thriller. Set just after the first world war, three men – Mac, Morgan and the youngest, James – man the Caillte Lighthouse Off the coast of Angus in the North Sea. All three still bear the traumatic scars of the war but that doesn’t mean that they can’t have a little fun sending James out to count seagulls or waves as part of his induction.

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Then – on a suitably dark and stormy night – a mysterious stranger is spotted on the jetty with no boat in sight. Stranger still, the man’s face is swaddled in scarves, largely incoherent as he appears to be injured but also seems to be German – so the men aren’t particularly bothered if he lives or dies. He’s also carrying a small pouch filled with diamonds.

Cartledge’s script quite deliberately doesn’t answer ever mystery here (and there are more to come). He is much more interested in how greed and paranoia affects Mac, Morgan and James’ relationship. This Early Doors production boasts very effective light and sound effects which add greatly to the dread-filled atmosphere on this “haunted rock” and there’s even a pretty effective jump scare. Rory Ford

Billy Boy ***

Gilded Balloon Teviot (Venue 14), until 28 August

Welcome to wild and lawless East Belfast, where young locals pull all-nighters to guard one of their famous bonfires from the “peelers” and “contractors” of the city council. In this traditionally Protestant area of the city, the “boney” is an act of celebration to see in the Twelfth, yet the authorities’ patience is wearing ever-thinner with them.

John Travers is Aaron, a young Belfast man who takes pride in the bonfire as an expression of community and a source of illicit excitement. Drug dealers hang around the fringes, and youths throw gas canisters and mattresses on. Rosemary Jenkinson’s monologue piece is performed with masses of physical and verbal energy by Travers, drawing the audience into this world with evocative style.

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After a spot of trouble with the authorities, Aaron takes himself off to Amsterdam – the parallels with King William of Orange are noted by Travers’ bookending performance of the character – and meets and falls in love with a young Catholic Dutch woman, who fosters in him a worldly perspective beyond his own neighbourhood.

“Why do you have to prove who you are?” she asks. “In this country, if you don't prove it you lose it,” he responds. In this engaging portrait of contemporary Belfast, old stories of sectarian conflict are backgrounded in favour of an engaging and honest portrait of cultural identity. David Pollock