Edinburgh Fringe theatre reviews – James Rowland: Piece of Work | Abbey's Box | Hot as Hell | Pleading Stupidity | He Wears It Well | Grown Up Orphan Annie

It's Hamlet like you've never seen it before in James Rowland's searching Piece of Work, while the also soul-bearing Abbey's Box's provides an upbeat and insightful snapshot of a personal life behind a performance

James Rowland: Piece of Work ****

Summerhall (Venue 26) until 27 August

When James Rowland was fresh out of drama school, his first play was a one-man Hamlet production (it was, he tells us, exactly how it sounds). Some decades later, he is, in a way, returning to his roots with Piece of Work, an agile, vivid feat of storytelling that weaves in Shakespeare’s tragic prince.Yet Piece of Work is less an adaptation of Hamlet than an archaeological excavation of its ongoing resonances with our own small, (un)remarkable lives, examining the ways in which the play can focalise our murky experiences of grief and loss and desperation. On the surface, the hour recounts a few months of Rowland’s life, as he prepares to perform a play about his now-passed father and negotiates his relationship with his beloved brother. Yet intricate roots tether Rowland’s simple narrative and warm, direct manner: this is, really, a dialogue between Rowland and English literature’s most tragic hero, allowing the haunting nature of grief, the slipperiness of memory, and our urgency towards belonging to bloom.What counts as home, when our lives are so in flux? For Rowland, the stage is his home (Summerhall’s Anatomy Lecture Theatre is his favourite room in the world, he tells us) – unsurprising, when he is so in his element on it. But at periodic points he brings out maps – some printed, some hand drawn, some tattered through love and use – and spreads them on the floor, bringing the world beyond, ever so briefly, into the light. “This shit island,” Rowland says, as he unfolds a map of Great Britain, “I am tied to it, for better or worse.” It is the very tension that lies at the heart of Piece of Work: the tragic flaws we are bound to, the hurts we cannot escape, the people and places that leave behind indelible marks. Anahit Behrooz

Abbey's Box ****

Greenside @ Infirmary Street (Venue 236) until 26 August

Grilling sausages into the sunset: is this love, or just dinner? It’s a question that writer/ performer Abbey Glover half asks when she finds herself in a relationship with Daniel from Bumble, willingly incarcerated in his cabin in Vermont at the height of the lockdown. In this, the one woman show that he isn’t exactly championing her to make, she explores the variety of ‘boxes’ -- of which the cabin is one – a place that she’s found herself stuck in over the years, including a large ‘sports utility’ version which she enters on stage today.

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Abbey’s a kooky characterful narrator whose wry take on relationships wouldn’t be out of place in either a Greta Gerwig film or the Peanuts comic strip. From the perspective of her one literal and many metaphorical ‘boxes’, she tells us how she’s always felt weird and different – and there’s a growing and not particularly ambiguous sense that maybe she shouldn’t be romantically pursuing men like Daniel at all, or even men per sec. We might get the message some time before she does, but her journey to catch up is full of charm and a delight to watch.

Piece of Work: James RowlandPiece of Work: James Rowland
Piece of Work: James Rowland

Despite the sense of warmth and camaraderie that Glover expertly conjures up, the piece is also a warning about the dangers of ignoring oneself to appease others, of the difference between “quirks” and red flags, and of the phenomena known as ‘gaslighting.’ Maybe Abbey’s not odd afterall, maybe she’s “amazing, unique, spectacular”. Thanks to a shift of perspective, she’s here with us today and her journey to get here makes for an upbeat and insightful snapshot of a personal life behind a performance and the kind of events that might lead a performer, amongst many thousands of others, to put on a show at the Fringe. Sally Stott

Hot as Hell ***Pleasance (Venue 33) until 28 August

A wildly entertaining horror comedy, Hot as Hell follows Becky, a Tumblr-coded outcast and competitive Varsity Choir singer, as she brings her demonic best friend to her first ever high school party. Like Glee mixed with Heathers but with more satanic whispering, this chaotic suburban gothic offers only flashes of Becky’s backstory, focusing instead on far weightier matters: who’s kissing who, and, most importantly, who’s going to secure a mid-party duet with German exchange student and heavenly-voiced ex-choir boy Hans.

Written by Johnna Dias-Watson (of Netflix’s Wednesday) and produced and performed by Dias-Watson and Aidan Futterman, Hot as Hell has brilliant bones, but it feels like a sketch of a show; the rare Fringe performance that would benefit from an extra ten minutes in length. Campy music choices (Britney, Katy Perry), smart, sparse staging and comedic physical theatre – poor Hans’ persecution is particularly well done, as are Becky’s shadowy demons – bring polish to the silliness, even though the subtext is heavy handed. Poor Becky sends forever in a closet, supposedly playing 7 Minutes in Heaven, and she’s not fooling anyone. Ouija boards, bad German accents and a really, really, really haunted house, Hot as Hell is true Fringe chaos. Katie Hawthorne

Pleading Stupidity ***

Pleasance Dome (Venue 23) until 28 August

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In 2005, two Australian men were spending the summer in the ski town of Vail, Colorado. Bored, they decided to rob a bank with BB guns. It was a complete disaster. They were arrested within days, sentenced to several years in prison, and dubbed the “Dumb and Dumber” of bank robbers. Pleading Stupidity is a farcical new show from comedy company Maybe You Like It that tells this remarkable, ridiculous story with imagination, wit, and a mountain of metatheatrical humour.

Written and directed by Maybe You Like It’s artistic director Caleb Barron, and devised with the company, the show hops backwards and forwards in time to depict the build-up to the bank robbery, the event itself, and the aftermath for everyone involved. It is packed full of silly accents, outrageous characters, and layered gags – all of it delivered with a knowing nod to the audience.

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The four-strong cast are great, with James Akka and Barney Newman particularly good doubling as brainless bogans Chad and Brad and the clueless cops on their tail. Not everything works – a late stab at making a serious point about the slipperiness of storytelling falls flat – but it does not really matter when you are laughing this loud. Fergus Morgan

He Wears It Well **

Greenside @ Riddle’s Court (Venue 116) until 26 August

It is 2023, and there are no openly gay footballers playing in the English Premier League. Bristol-based company Pin Theatre Collective attempts to tackle this topic with two-handed drama He Wears It Well. Written by India Rodgers and directed by Phoebe Mulcahy, it follows an unlikely relationship between a record-breaking striker, who bizarrely plays for Bristol City, and a software designer who has collaborated with him on a FIFA-style video game. The romance resonates, but little else: the staging is clunky, the performances patchy, and it feels inauthentic, as if its creators have never actually seen a game of football. Fergus Morgan

Grown Up Orphan Annie **

Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose (Venue 24) until 27 August

In this rather bitty show, Katherine Bourne Taylor imagines little orphan Annie – “the chatterbox with the auburn locks” – in vaguely desperate post-cutie mode and without any of the original songs. Now she’s dabbling in podcasting and sponsored by Ovaltine - anything to keep the wolf from the door since Sandy the dog deserted her and Daddy Warbucks only made surreal provision for her in his will. She’s got a new sidekick and a semi-obliging lighting technician but it’s a hard knock life being a former child star. Fiona Shepherd

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