Fringe theatre reviews: Ghosts of the Near Future | Red Alert – Cancer! | Spoons | Encore | What the Heart Wants

Half existential crisis, half fever dream, Ghosts of the Near Future is a sure-fire cult Fringe hit, while Spoons, Encore and What the Heart Wants all show promise. Reviews by Katie Hawthorne, Rory Ford and David Pollock.

Ghosts of the Near Future ****

Summerhall (Venue 27)

Have you heard the one about a magician, a preacher, and a nuclear physicist? Or the one about a showgirl, a dead cat, and the end of the world as we know it? Ghosts of the Near Future is half existential crisis, half fever dream and a sure-fire cult Fringe hit. A salty cocktail of magic, live micro-cinema and magnetic storytelling from performance duo Emma & PJ, this play is about the part-truths we feed each other for comfort when there’s nothing else to say.

Hitch a ride as their road trip twists through the dry Nevada desert toward the hot lights of Las Vegas, via a hallucinatory, gasoline-soaked saloon bar. With sparse, clever props and striking scenography by Georgie Hook, Emma & PJ conjure the grandeur of Death Valley in a shoebox and transform Summerhall’s historic Demonstration Room into a glitteringly sinister casino.

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Deeply silly in the way that only deeply clever writing can be, the dialogue is thick with riddles and spaghetti western cliches, but also brave enough to stare directly at life’s unanswerable questions.

For a play about mass extinction and, at the very least, the ageing and inevitable death of our loved ones, Ghosts of the Near Future offers genuine comfort and a shocking sense of peace. Warm, dreamy lighting by Alex Fernandes and witty sound design by Patch Middleton help to create a ramshackle, richly cinematic experience that acknowledges just how remote and inhospitable the future can feel.

Combatting fear and dread with good old razzle dazzle and enormous heart, you can tell that Emma & PJ are theatre magicians by the white gloves that they wear, and the way that they find beauty in truly painful places. Katie Hawthorne

Ghosts of the Near Future. Pic: Contributed.Ghosts of the Near Future. Pic: Contributed.
Ghosts of the Near Future. Pic: Contributed.

Red Alert - Cancer! **

ZOO Playground (Venue 186), until 13 August

Allan Wilson is not an actor - "as will become obvious soon," he assures us - he is, however a cancer survivor. The disease struck the three red-headed siblings in his family; Allan, his sister Heather and brother Iain. This is their story and while it's occasionally speckled with moments of insight and gentle humour it's haltingly presented by Allan who's best moments are, tellingly, off script. Some clear effort has been made to present this in a visually interesting manner but ultimately it does end up looking like a slide/tape presentation made by a perfectly pleasant gentleman reading rather uncertainly from cue cards. Rory Ford

Spoons ***

Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose (Venue 24), until 28 August

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Brenda is a marriage guidance councillor whose main relationship in life appears to be with her dog Toby. Dedicated to maintaining a sense of balance in the consulting room, even when one party is being wildly unreasonable, she never lets any of her clients talk about her. Then one day in the park she meets similarly middle-aged Nita, a recent divorcee, who’s moved away from life as a merchant banker towards wholesome activities like painting and running. The pair grow closer, as Brenda’s main clients – comedy promoter Charlie and his wife and former secretary Apples (it’s a childhood nickname) – grow further apart.

Scripted by broadcast comedy writer Jon Canter, whose credits include Lenny Henry and Fry and Laurie, and directed by former head of BBC Radio Comedy and producer of Twenty Twelve and W1A Paul Schlesinger, Spoons feels like a gentle Radio 4 relationship drama, which is how it suckers you in for its best lines. This being the Gilded Balloon, there are sharp in-jokes at what venal ladies’ man Charlie does for a living (“comedians are the least funny people you'll ever meet,” ponders Apple) and some fun table-turning moments when Brenda turns up for the couple’s final session drunk. It’s a well-acted comedy with some funny lines, but all the characters feel just too likable to develop a real sense of bite. David Pollock

Encore ***

C aquila (Venue 21), until 28 August (not 27)

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A young woman with flame-red hair wakes up in a darkened room, unsure where she is or how to get out. Soon she’s joined by a pale-faced man in a flowing scarf named Rubik. Her name is Jail Blue, she’s a rock star who played her comeback concert last night after a period out of the business following drug abuse issues and rehab. Jail thinks the man is here for an interview set up by her conniving manager, but the questions get more intense. Is he an interviewer, a police officer investigating a crime or some kind of supernatural figure? Or a figment of her own imagination?

This rough and DIY two-hander from playwright Helena Garcia (also co-director with Sandra Bravo) never quite answers the question, but Spanish company Histeria have enough to work with to develop a bit of tension in the room. Although the physicality of the play is lacking – a scene where Jail attacks Rubik in a kind of balletic face-off is the least convincing – the vocal and gestural aspects of the actors’ performances hold the attention, and some low-key electric guitar from a third performer gives the moodily slow-paced piece a bit of Velvet Underground atmosphere. David Pollock

What the Heart Wants ***

Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose (Venue 24), until 28 August

Two convincing performances help sell this often funny two-hander based around an unusual conceit. It's 1992 and Woody Allen (Simon Schatzberger) has been accused of child abuse by Mia Farrow. Things get even worse when Mia's ex, Frank Sinatra (Richard Shelton) turns up at Woody's apartment wielding a baseball bat. "None of this happened," asserts the opening disclaimer - but it could have. Unexpectedly, Bert Tyler-Moore's script subtly teases out parallels between the two men - they had more in common than Mia.

The uneasy subject matter means this could have run into exploitative poor taste but the script pulls off a difficult tightrope walk. It's helped immensely in this by its two star performances. Schatzberger's Allen is a finely drawn self-mocking evocation of the disgraced auteur while Shelton's Sinatra is a commanding presence with a booming voice - and, boy, can he sing! Dramatically, it gets a bit bogged down in metafictional mud when Sinatra and Allen start collaborating on a script but what keeps this interesting are the characters. Tyler-Moore obviously has a fondness for the work of Allen and Sinatra and it shows in respect for the characters. Of course, not everyone would agree that both men deserve that respect but it's there. Rory Ford

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