Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre reviews: Today I Killed My Very First Bird | Raging Mother | North Star (What I Listened to Instead of My Intuition) | The Twenty-Sided Tavern | Intelligence | Autopilot

A refreshing, if ugly, new spin on London gangster drama shtick, a frank and funny show about the real struggles of motherhood, and a poignant musical story of forgiveness and resilience are among the latest theatre highlights our reviewers have discovered on the Fringe. Words by David Pollock, Fergus Morgan and Ariane Branigan.

Today I Killed My Very First Bird ****

Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33), until 29 August (not 10, 17)

Don’t let the immediate overtones of gruff, wideboy Guy Ritchie gangster shtick put you off – there’s far more unexpected connection and even tenderness to this new piece by Plymouth-based artist, actor, poet and playwright Jason Brownlee. He takes the lead role among a cast of five, in a play which is nevertheless steeped in absolute human brutality and misery.

Brownlee’s character is a gangster and hitman from London, a violent and merciless man who carries on the Ritchie comparison in his resemblance to Vinnie Jones. He shoots people in elevators, is the terror of indebted drug dealer Bunny (Brandon Howard) and mocks his best friend Joe (Sham Ali), whose taste for Eastern European sex workers has given him an unpleasant STD. Yet this thug loves his heroin-addicted mum (Sue Raphael) and his sex-enthused girlfriend Bernie (Amber L Jacobs), exposing moments of fragility as he recalls his childhood abuse and neglect.

The actors line up on the other side of a row of tables, switching the desk lights in front of them on and off as their turn to speak arrives. The effect feels transferrable to a radio play, although their characters are etched on each face in the half-light, and there are moments where their performances go beyond the verbal; Joe’s standing encounter with a woman in a toilet, for example, or the ensemble’s stunned, slow-motion sweep of their heads as they take drugs in a nightclub in unison.

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The superficialities of the story are of a Long Good Friday-esque gangster thriller, but the rhyming couplets it’s told in and the air of inescapable tragedy lend it a more thoughtful, Shakespearean quality.

The evocation of a multi-racial London underworld feels true, while Lee Hart’s direction is powerful. In particular, Jacobs’ well-honed extended monologue about Bernie’s life history of sexual enjoyments and abuses is a captivatingly grisly sequence. It’s an old story given a refreshing, if ugly, new spin. David Pollock

Today I Killed My Very First Bird

Raging Mother ***

Zoo Southside (Venue 82), until 20 August

At the start of Raging Mother, one of five shows in the From Start To Finnish showcase of work from Finland-based artists, Hanna Vahtikari bounds on stage in a gorilla costume, wearing boxing gloves and pounding her chest, before heaving a baby monkey from her vagina.

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It is an alarming and appropriate intro to her amusing show, which explores the untold aspects of motherhood – the moments when you might feel more like a monster than a mum, more like a gorilla with a grudge than a loving parent – and dismantles the unhelpful ideals of maternity.

Over 70 minutes, writer and director Vahtikari tells the story of her early years of parenthood – from her decision to have a c-section, to her attempts to get her child dressed, to her desperate desire to carve out some time for herself – through a series of skits and sketches and songs.

Marzi Nyman – Vahtikari’s actual husband – shares the stage with her throughout, accompanying her on the keyboards, the guitar, and with occasional lines of dialogue, and the whole thing is shot through with a blunt, bleak Scandi humour. It is a frank and funny show about the real struggles of motherhood – and it deserves a bigger audience than it is currently getting. Fergus Morgan

North Star (What I Listened to Instead of My Intuition) ***

theSpace @ Surgeons Hall (Venue 53), until 13 August

Unflinchingly honest in its depiction of abusive parents, failed careers and turbulent relationships, North Star… charts a journey of self-growth through a mixture of operatic numbers, original music, and spoken word. Lori Hamilton reenacts pivotal and often traumatic moments from her childhood through to the present day with disarming vulnerability; at times, it almost feels like reading someone’s diary or listening to their private playlist.

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Hamilton’s storytelling prowess is clear from the get-go as she flits between her child self, her raging mother, and her “guardian angel” - an increasingly harried alter ego whose patience with her is clearly wearing thin. The latter is a clever way to interject humour into fairly dark subject matter, although the asides do occasionally jilt the show’s pacing. Additionally, Hamilton’s stories are so engaging in and of themselves that the musical numbers and choreography start to feel redundant. During the Fringe, every second counts - some of that time could have been more effectively spent elaborating on her intriguing life experiences, as even after an hour we feel Hamilton has much more to say. Despite these hiccups, however, North Star… remains a poignant story of forgiveness and resiliency. Ariane Branigan

Intelligence **

Assembly Roxy (Venue 139), until 28 August

New York City-based Dutch Kills Theater’s three-handed drama attempts to skewer a diplomatic dilemma: when to engage baddies and when to wipe them out? Two junior employees at the state department meet with a maverick overseas envoy to discuss a developing crisis in an unspecified foreign country, role-playing various conversations with local leaders, each of them with a different opinion on the best path to peace. Banner’s writing is articulate, Jess Chayes’ direction slick, and the three performances perfectly fine – but this is a desperately dry show. It is all head, no heart, and at 80 minutes, criminally overlong. Fergus Morgan

The Twenty-Sided Tavern **

Pleasance Dome (Venue 23), until 28 August

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Every audience experiences something different with The Twenty-Sided Tavern, an interactive, part-improvised, choose-your-own adventure inspired by fantasy phenomenon Dungeons and Dragons, arriving in Edinburgh after apparently earning acclaim across the Atlantic. Audiences enter, scan a QR code, and are guided through a seventy-minute show by a hard-working, six-strong team. There are witches, wizards, caves and castles. There are dice-rolls, riddles, and smart-phone challenges. It is unfunny, unashamedly childish, and although the rules that run the show are undoubtedly smart, they are also far too complex to comprehend and take far too long to explain. The whole thing is ultimately like watching someone else play a boring boardgame. Fergus Morgan

Autopilot ***

Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33), until 29 August (not 15)

On a bare stage, starkly lit from above, the relationship between two women unfolds. Rowan (Cassie Bradley) is a geospatial engineer, a ‘digital cartographer’, whose career leads her to work on self-driving cars; she creates hypothetical maps of “the what-would-happen-if?” and listens to the sound of a dial-up modem on Spotify for comfort. Nic (Hannah van der Westhuysen) is an illustrator who moves into political cartooning, with fiercely convinced left-wing politics which jar with the well-paid Rowan’s practical attitude.

The pair meet at work and begin a relationship which feels tender and real, although increasingly mediated by their ‘relationship’ with the Alexa unit they have at home. Over time, though, cracks begin to show, as city life, prospective home ownership and their differing social and political attitudes begin to jar. Rowan can’t understand why Nic won’t even accept a £15,000 arts prize sponsored by BP so she can give the money to charity; “charity is a failure of government”, snaps back her partner.

Bradley and van der Westhuysen are classy and convincing actors, and Ben Norris’s play gives them much to get their teeth into, including the revelation their backgrounds don’t match their current circumstances. It’s an ambitious and mostly very good piece about the fragmentary nature of life amid advancing technology, but Norris’s choice to jumble the chronology of the scenes saps momentum with a staccato, often unsatisfying rhythm. David Pollock