Edinburgh Fringe reviews – Bryony Byrne: A Clown Tries to Write a Play (WIP) | Overthinking It | Chris Cook Asked a Robot to Write Him a Five-Star Show and This Is What It Said | The Birth of Frankenstein

It's ticking towards deadline o'clock and Sally Stott is scouring the Fringe in search of inspiration. Luckily there's a litany of shows with interesting things to say about the very act of writing – be it comedy, theatre, cabaret, or reviews thereof.


Bryony Byrne: A Clown Tries to Write a Play (WIP) ****

PBH's Free Fringe @ Banshee Labyrinth (Venue 156) until 27 August


Overthinking It ***

Laughing Horse @ Eastside (Venue 164) until 27 August


Bryony Byrne: A Clown Tries to Write a Play (WIP)Bryony Byrne: A Clown Tries to Write a Play (WIP)
Bryony Byrne: A Clown Tries to Write a Play (WIP)

Chris Cook Asked a Robot to Write Him a Five-Star Show and This Is What It Said ****

PBH’s Free Fringe @ Voodoo Rooms (Venue 68) until 27 August


The Birth of Frankenstein ***

Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33) until 28 August

There’s 24 hours to the deadline and I’m struggling. So is Bryony Bryne. She’s faffing about with a Shakespearian ruff, trying to put up a desk, at war with a typewriter that won’t come out of its case. This is a show where deflection exercises aren’t so much a distraction as the building blocks for a story in which, as the title says, A Clown Tries to Write a Play. And today, a reviewer going through a similar process tries to capture it with a notebook and pen. How do you write about writing?

Bryony does it brilliantly, a master of the structure described in her ‘Playwrighting for Dummies’ book. With her sulky, serious, writerly face solidly stuck on, she enlists the help of the audience, as well as the words of American journalist and author Hunter Thompson, who tells us what else is required: tacos, cocaine, coffee, grapefruit and continuous pornography. With the help of at least some of the above, she cooks up a storm, or is it a play, or a cake, or Harold Pinter? Whatever it is, it takes the escalating sense of anticipation, and pressure, that anyone who’s familiar with “getting ready to write” will recognise and transplants it out of our heads and onto the stage. “Do you know how to write a play?” she asks at the start. “Do you know how to write a review?” I wish I’d replied by the end.

I’m probably overthinking it, so I take the question to a show called Overthinking It. Here, comedians Francesco Kirchhoff and Ori Halevy create jokes from topics anonymously suggested by the audience. After questions on Israel/Palestine, women’s football and identity politics, there’s one about writing a review. However, I’d forgotten that comedians famously hate reviewers and so this sparks a search to find “him”, before my anonymity is eventually shattered and I reveal that I’m a she/her. Why do reviewers have to make things all about themselves, they ask. Who am I? Kate Copstick?

Playing with the mood like the flickering light in the dimly lit bar, and incorporating pretty much every subject the audience suggests, Francesco and Ori construct witty comebacks and improvised asides. As questions repeat, the show becomes a barometer for what’s on people’s minds, as well as which subjects are worth discussing and which aren’t in a way that’s often very funny but also thought provoking. I’m given a job shouting ‘next’ when the jokes run out. It tests my comic timing. Sometimes I’m successful, sometimes I aren’t. Our time together is designed to look conversational, but isn’t, as Francesco points out. It requires creativity that they don’t have every day. I know the feeling.

With just 12 hours until the deadline, I start to get desperate. Maybe ChatGPT, the computer programme that people use to write things, could help? It’s what magician Chris Cook turned to when developing his show Chris Cook Asked a Robot to Write Him a Five-Star Show and This Is What It Said. And what it said was “make an elephant appear.” Easier said than done, as Chris points out, since magicians aren’t exactly famous for revealing the methods behind their tricks on the internet. But with the cardboard headed robot who has just-about-but-not-quite replaced his long-time friend and co-writer Rhys Williamson (a “mumbling guy from Kent”), he back engineers the mechanics behind the ‘magic’ suggested by artificial intelligence to reveal something more interesting.

It becomes clear that magic isn’t just tricks; it’s also connections between people and, occasionally, poetry. Through combining it all, Chris and Rhys create something that is magical not just because of clever slights of hand and surprise effects – although there’s that as well – but because they play with the relationship between audience and performer, pushing themselves to be more creative humans through competing with technology. As Chris says, “For a show written by a robot, never has there been more fixing and rewriting”. In a final sequence, a non-magic kind of maybe-magic fills the room, as a woman imagines the future while Chris speaks to her in the past. At the end Chat GPT writes the five-star review. I assess the review's quality nervously. It’s not going to win any awards from the Critics Circle, but it’s also not terrible. I probably need to up my game, try something new, but there’s only six hours to go.

In The Birth of Frankenstein being a writer seems a lot less stressful. We follow the novel’s author, Mary Shelley, poet Percy Shelley and their contemporary Dr Polidori on a trip to Lord Bryron’s villa in Lake Geneva – this convening of bright young minds now almost as famous as the novel Mary conceived there, about a strange creature constructed from composite parts. Writer/ director Nick Hennegan’s script, which is based on an idea and some early scenes by another writer, Robert Lloyd George, injects 21st century commentary into this legendary tale-behind-a-tale set during the romantic era of the early 1800s, while Robb William’s cinematic music evokes nighttime storms on the lake accompanied by the tolling bells of time. Led by Byron’s philosophy of free love and free thinking, the dialogue captures the conversation of a dazzling collection of characters where the intellectualisation of sex and relationships seems to directly lead to literary classics. It’s a formula that still fuels the imagination, perhaps because it's more appealing than sitting at home on a laptop, struggling at a desk.

Produced by Maverick Theatre Company, which was founded on a council estate in inner-city Birmingham, the small-scale production has raw energy, solid performances and an engaging story. It’s also by two writers who clearly love writers and so have created a piece full of them, set at a time when they were all too briefly brought together by fate, the stars or, possibly, magic. “A record of the happiest and best minds,” as Shelley says – and perhaps, in their own way, the reviews from this year’s Fringe can be that too. Taking of which, my deadline’s here. Two minutes until I click send, three days until you read this, then one day until the end of the festival. Hope that you enjoyed the show.

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