Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre reviews: The Elephant in the Room | Charlotte Johnson: My Dad and Other Lies | Manbo | Almost Adult | The Ecstasy of Victoria Woodhull | Victoria Melody: Head Set
The Elephant in the Room ****
Assembly Rooms (Venue 20), until 27 August
One of the prevalent themes on the Fringe this year is work made by artists who have crossed geographical borders and must negotiate new identities. Priyanka Shetty reflects on an extreme version of this experience in her solo show, having left India and a secure job in software to move to the United States and train as an actress. We find her in her dressing room before a performance of her solo show which her parents are planning to attend. She realises she is stuck between two identities, the one her Indian family expects from her and the one she is forging for herself. At this point, an anonymous package arrives, which turns out to be a box of tarot cards themed around Ganesha, the Hindu elephant god.
The cards provide a scaffold for the story’s building blocks: Shetty’s memories of India; the mother who wanted more for her, yet held her back at the same time; the restrictions under which she lived as a single woman; her excitement for “the land of opportunity and unlimited soda refills” and the much trickier reality of arriving there to find she was “either a misfit or a stereotype”. The more we learn, the more we are drawn in to Shetty’s story: the male colleague who encouraged her to follow her calling; the showdown with her mother when she broke the news; her rebellious short hair and love of heavy metal. She’s not as Indian as she was, but she’s not white enough either.
Shetty deals in big emotions and primary colours: super excited, super disappointed. Look more carefully, however, and the complexity of the issues starts to emerge. “What do I do with my otherness?” she asks. “How colonised is my mind?” This is a loud and colourful play with a more thoughtful one tucked inside it. Susan Mansfield
Charlotte Johnson: My Dad and Other Lies ***
Pleasance Dome (Venue 23), until 29 August
“Nobody wants to watch a play about my Dad saving the NHS!” gushes Charlotte, self-described macramé expert, pop star, jewellery maker, podcaster, everything-she-wants-to-be-doer but primarily “Daddy’s Girl” daughter of Boris Johnson (injunction alert!). Or this character, played with a brilliantly bratty attitude, could also be the comic creation of Charlotte Johnson née Evans.
A delicious multi-platform parody of privilege, it’s an upbeat hour of audience participation in which Charlotte laments her lot and encourages us to be “kinder” and “more respectful” to “nepo(tism) babies” – children of celebrities – many of whom “built the Fringe” and whose offspring are performing sold-out shows this year. So, how’s that fair, yah?
“We’re here, don’t judge us,” she says in a show that lets the audience “shine” by forcing them to do the majority of the work, while sending spiky rebuffs to anyone who isn’t entirely responsible, in true free market style, for their own success. The dynamic might be depressingly familiar, but the delivery by our “actually just very talented” host is pure, predictable fun. We’re her sycophantic interviewers, flailing backing dancers, and uncredited stage hands, desperately trying to do the Daddy’s Girls musical opening number that, try as we might, we just can’t get right. Sally Stott
Gilded Balloon Teviot (Venue 14), until 29 August (not 24)
“Grab my balls!” shouts Manbo, handing out coloured (plastic) balls as we are blasted, with the force of a hand-held wind machine, into his high-octane world of comic action adventure. Part 1980s action hero, part equally 1980s rock star, he’s 100% testosterone – whether he’s blending a smoothie waiting for the call of duty, fighting evil villains in extreme locations with his vicious guard dog Fluffy, or fending off a particularly enthusiastic audience member with a foam stick.
With an ever-revolving wheel of movie references, from Rambo to Apocalypse Now, Rocky to James Bond, it’s a physically challenging, extremely silly, hour of pure, embodied entertainment. “There will be audience participation,” says Sam Dugmore, as Manbo, at the start – the kind where we’re required to to regularly get shot at, blown up and, at one point, create the carnage of a children’s ball pool.
The story is gloriously far-fetched, set against the backdrop of Afghanistan and the military career of Manbo, who wants to quit, but just can’t resist the opportunity to carry out a Bonnie Tyler-inspired training montage. With jazz hands just another kind of heavy weapon, he’s the kind of character who could have a show on every year at the Fringe that are all essentially the same shtick and it would still be a total treat to keep going back to them. An all-American romantic paired with every character played by Sylvester Stallone beginning with the letter “R”, Dugmore uses mime with the power of a land mine, but also expertly balances shifts in tone and pace to create the excitement but also emotion of the great action films that he parodies to celebrate “the best goddamn comic soldier in human history”. Sally Stott
Almost Adult ***
Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose (Venue 24), until 28 August (not 17)
Straight out of college, Hope (the name is portentous) moves to London from Macclesfield, head full of the bright lights. Soon, she has a monosyllabic flatmate, a job in a dinosaur-themed restaurant and Tinder on her phone: her life’s about to begin and she’s nailing this thing called adulthood. Except it’s not quite like that. We realise before she does that her Tinder date is just using her, and the sleazy manager at Dinoworld is a menace to the female staff.
Charlotte Anne-Tilley’s self-penned one-woman play – her Fringe debut, at 23 – is a confident, poised piece of writing. She dons the character of Hope as easily as her pink dinosaur costume, full of charm, innocence and irrepressible cheerfulness. But when a colleague is sexually assaulted, her sense of fairness and justice impels her to speak out, and she discovers, abruptly, that the adult world is murkier than she thought. In what is a very promising debut, Anne-Tilley skilfully balances moments of comedy with a darker picture of the vulnerability of young women making their way in the world, and the fact that there are still not enough safeguards to protect them. Susan Mansfield
The Ecstasy of Victoria Woodhull ***
theSpace on North Bridge (Venue 36), until 27 August (not 21)
You probably haven’t heard of Victoria Woodhull. A leading campaigner for women’s suffrage in the US, she was the first woman to publicly address Congress and actually ran for President in 1872, before women even had the vote. US-based Owl and Pussycat Theatre Company, the husband-and-wife team of performer Ashley Ford and writer Theo Salter, have found a suitably colourful way of putting her story on stage.
And what a story it is: the daughter of an Ohio swindler who sold his daughter’s services as a child clairvoyant, she went on to trade on Wall Street and run a liberal newspaper. The darling of suffrage reformers for a short time, she was ditched (and all but erased from history) because she also argued for free love. The sheer weight of information in this hour-long play is in danger of swamping the drama, but Ford and Salter shake up the usual historical biography format: Ford plays Celeste, a novice clairvoyant who finds herself channelling Victoria.
While it wouldn’t hurt to see more of Victoria’s character as well as her achievements, this is a fascinating piece of lost history that left me wanting to know more. Susan Mansfield
Victoria Melody: Head Set ***
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33), until 28 August (not 23)
Like the Stacey Dooley of the stage, Victoria Melody takes time to immerse herself in the different communities that have inspired her theatre work, from pigeon fanciers to northern soul dancers, beauty queens to funeral directors. Given her tenacity in the name of performance art, she is rather surprised to be diagnosed with ADHD when she embarks on her latest challenge: stand-up comedy.
It’s a discipline for which she uncovers no obvious talent. However, her neurodiversity opens up a new line of inquiry. At the suggestion of scientist pal Silvana, Melody dons an EEG headset to monitor her brain activity during her stand-up routines – will telling jokes counter her dopamine deficit?
The punters on the open mic circuit may not be engaged by her oblique material but the scientific community lap it up and soon enough she’s doing a gig in an MRI machine. We’ll have to take her word for it as she recreates lab conditions in rather flaky fashion, doubting her own data. If nothing else, she’s gained some quirky headgear and a stand-up USP. Her routines may not be that funny but Melody has carved out a diverting hour by showing her working. Fiona Shepherd