Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre reviews: The Sian Clarke Experience | Ghislaine/Gabler | Baxter vs The Bookies | Blood Sweat and Vaginas | Badass

Our latest reviews round-up includes an impressive selection of provocative, frank and insightful one-woman shows. Words by Katie Hawthorne, David Hepburn, Susan Mansfield and Sally Stott.

The Sian Clarke Experience ****

Underbelly, Cowgate (Venue 61)

A violent pastiche of food-based sexiness forms the beginning of Sian Clarke’s gloriously angry and endlessly funny-horrible-provocative-strange one-woman show. Sit in the front row and prepare to be covered in half-downed beer, semi-chewed banana and the remains of a can of spaghetti, the rest of which is splashed down her front.

The Sian Clarke Experience. PIC: Gordon Breslin.

If you’re a stag do or on a night out with the lads, you should definitely go to this clever boundary-pushing piece of comedy theatre, in which you’ll get to see scary-sexy Sian half naked, wearing a blow-up penis and generally cavorting about, shouting about how wonderful she is – a well as a whole lot more.

Some people, apparently, find Sian “very intense.” I have to admit that I’m initially one of them – with her white-hot stare, angry, shouty delivery, patrolling the stage like a shark, it’s not a shock to hear that men describe her as “angry, rude, mean”. But after she’s barked at us like a dog and taken us through a gloriously disturbing ‘guided mediation’, it becomes apparent what drives her rage – the everyday sexism, comments and abuse that she, along with most women, have experienced out and about on the street. And suddenly her reaction doesn’t seem so strange any more.

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Mining “15 years of material”, which is filtered through routines full of unexpected juxtapositions that provoke, surprise and shock – the show feels like an invigorating revenge for anyone who has undergone this kind of "shit”, even if Sian questions whether it will really change anything.

A final scene in which she asks audience members to stand up if they’re experienced different types of unwanted attention from strangers – been told to smile, called body parts, or touched – leads to the most unlikely of standing ovations and a powerful moment of separation that brilliantly concludes the show’s point. Sally Stott

Until 28 August

Hedda **

Greenside @ Infirmary Street (Venue 236)

Ghislaine/Gabler ***

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Greenside @ Riddles Court (Venue 16)

Privileged and petulant, with too much time their hands and little time for ethics, these two versions of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, transported from 1890 to the present day, have a lot in common. Still, to some degree, created and contained by the male dominated worlds which, over a hundred years later, they continue to live in, they are also their own manipulative characters, as fascinating as they are unfathomable and, ultimately, terrible.

In Hedda, we are transported to a blandly opulent, geographically generic apartment of the comfortably well off, set against of backdrop of tech entrepreneurship and CCTV in the garden, where Hedda, daughter of a famous general, makes smooties and mischief, while entertaining her success hungry friends and flings, at the edge of which is her doting new husband, an academic, who is less financially robust than she first thought.

The complexities of the plot – essentially Hedda, a destructive force, fuelled by jealousy and boredom, manipulates others to devastating effect – gets somewhat lost in the cocaine and Campari, but the cast give polished, engaging performances, which capture the manufactured dramas of people who have all of the time and money to make them.

Ghislaine/Gabler is a contrastingly stripped back re-imagining of the story, which here focuses on Ghislaine Maxwell, who is portrayed as a Gabler-esque figure and we meet, in jail, following her conviction for helping Jeffrey Epstein to abuse teenage girls. This dual exploration of the two women – Maxwell and Gabler, both defined by their father’s names – works surprisingly well as a device to paint a portrait of Maxwell, committed to the idea that she’s innocent while barely concealing not only her guilt, but her disparity for Epstein’s accusers.

Why aren’t we concentrated on “ocean trash” or “single use plastics” instead, she demands? Through an absorbing, unsettling performance by Kristin Winters, who is also the writer, paired an imaginative well-directed production, it’s a piece that searches for insights into Maxwell’s character through Gabler – exploring her abusive relationship with her father, as well as her development into someone who appears to have everything apart from a moral compass.

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“You can’t be weak in the public eye,” this Maxwell says, powerless in prison, but still wearing her power suit, claiming that the girls who were abused knew what they were doing, while simultaneously concealing this and turning away in horror when it happens, in a way she doesn’t appear to feel is at all contradictory.

Existing alongside the much poured over news stories, there’s a danger such a play could have a similarly sensationalised tone – and while there is a certain amount of voyeurism inherent in the concept, it is thoughtfully written and offers something more than just another headline, through its attempts to shed light on what motivates its complex and often confusing protagonist. “I am a victim of helping Jeffrey Epstein” Maxwell says at the end and we are left to consider – as we are with Hedda Gabler – how much of the way that she sees herself is or isn’t the way that we see her too. Sally Stott

Until 27 August

Baxter vs The Bookies ***

Gilded Balloon Teviot (14)

Anyone who enjoys a flutter on the horses will be right at home with actor Andy Linden’s one-man show in which he adapts four stories from Roy Granville’s book of the same name. Baxter is an old school horse-racing tipster who runs an old-fashioned telephone tipping line, but his fortunes are mixed at best, and his failures make the best stories.

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There’s the day he loses thousands when he passes out on painkillers for toothache. And the account about the postman who delivers him sure-fire winners from his dreams was never going to end well. Most poignant is the story of love-interest Beverley Stokes, who picks winners without exception, which might be one reason she doesn’t pick Baxter.

Linden wears his character with ease, capturing Baxter’s philosophical attitude and dry humour, even if his conspiratorial murmur struggles at times to rise above the sound of the air conditioning in Teviot’s Wee Room. Baxter’s world is conveyed knowledgably and authentically, but it might be somewhat lost on those with no interest in horse-racing. Susan Mansfield

Until 28 August

Blood Sweat and Vaginas ***

Pleasance (Venue 33)

Carolann is probably more of a Samantha than a Charlotte, with a generous sprinkle of Bridget Jones’ kooky self-deprecation. Powered by Aretha Franklin and the power of masturbation, Blood Sweat and Vaginas is a timely update on predictable rom-com tropes, with the spotlight on a peri-menopausal Black woman in the midst of a sexual awakening.

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Honest to the bone and enjoyably, boldly graphic, this one-woman show by Paula David follows our heroine as she negotiates hot flushes, a miserable husband and her own, unexpected desires. David is a tender, endearing performer who, after a slow first scene, really blooms as the play progresses, easing into the role just as Carolann embraces new opportunities.

Disco and soul mixes with running montages and slapstick sex scenes, all achieved through very simple scene-setting and the occasional costume change. It’s a minimal production, but this gives David room to shine – particularly in her nuanced depiction of Carolann’s nightclub revelations, or in the bathroom conversations with Carolann’s unseasonably wise teenager.

Concise, pacy and likely relatable to many, Blood Sweat and Vaginas celebrates facets of womanhood often underexplored in the pop cultural mainstream. It’s no small victory when Carolann learns to put her pleasure first. Katie Hawthorne

Until 29 August

Badass ***

Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)

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Welcome to the toilets of the The White Lion Pub in Stevenage in December 2017, where writer and performer Sarah Mills first discovered “too much blood” after visiting the ladies during a bad date. It’s also the starting point of a candid, humorous and important one-woman show about an illness that people still find, sometimes fatally, difficult to talk about.

She’s on a mission to make up for this, with a true-life account of what it’s like to have bowel cancer. A short ‘getting to know you’ section introduces us to her family, friends and pre-diagnosis love life, before the audience are whisked through a succession of symptoms, scans, operations, and check-ups.

Unflinching descriptions of medical procedures and the practicalities of colostomy bags are tempered with sections of sometimes-awkward observational humour. A chemotherapy ward that’s “less cold and sterile than the average Wetherspoons” becomes a place to chat up fellow patients, even as neuropathy sees her start to lose the feeling in her fingers.

It’s a tricky balance between comedy and theatre that is largely navigated well, concluding with a rousing love letter to the NHS, her “army of knights in shining armour wearing blue scrubs”. David Hepburn

Until 29 August