Edinburgh Festival 2018: Best Fringe shows for Brexit satire

In real life, leaving the EU isn’t a barrel of laughs. Fortunately, it’s different on the stage, writes Tim Cornwell

THEATRE

Jonny Woo's All Star Brexit Cabaret. Picture: Contibuted

Jonny Woo's All Star Brexit Cabaret. Picture: Contibuted

Brexit, Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33) *****

The Laird’s Big Breaxit, Scottish Storytelling Centre (Venue 30) ***

Diary of an Expat, Underbelly, Cowgate (Venue 61) ***

CABARET & VARIETY

Jonny Woo’s All Star Brexit Cabaret, Assembly George Square Gardens (Venue 3) ****

If satirising Britain’s handling of the Brexit process is like shooting fish in a barrel, then Brexit at the Pleasance slays and serves a shoal of fine black cod stuffed and grilled with those tasty little squares of crunchy skin.

It’s Downing Street, 2020: the new Tory Prime Minister Adam Masters is picking ministers for Brexit and trade, still trying to really nail down those negotiations with Europe at the same time as juggling leavers, remainers, and rejoiners in a restive party barely held together by its loathing for the “mods and rockers” of the Labour benches.

In other words, nothing has changed. In a foray to Brussels, in what becomes a clever framing device, Masters – The Archers star Tim Bentinck – pleads with the vampish, Merkel-like EU chief negotiator to give him a break. Deliciously delivered by Jo Caulfield, she compares the British negotiating position to “My Favourite Things” from The Sound of Music – taunting him with whiskers on kittens, and warm woollen mittens, as he gloomily considers the chance of “doing a Norway”.

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At home, Mike McShane is the PM’s foil, his campaign manager and eminence grise of Brexit politics, a murky, multi-layered political operator, both fool and conscience to the king. In the new cabinet the high Brexiteer MP Simon Cavendish (Hal Cruttenden) and remainer Diana Purdy (Pippa Evans) find common cause in toppling the PM’s game of political Jenga; the extremes combine to attack the middle.

Past shows by writers Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky include the Fringe hit Coalition, and the script has wonderful throw-away lines. Bentick’s illustrious CV includes The Thick of It, but this has more the sly realpolitik of Yes, Prime Minister, as his pledge to ride off in “full steam reverse” sees his hubris unravelling, with not even the distraction of a same-sex royal wedding to save the day.

There’s a plausible theory here – that the Brexit process might descend into a frenetic inertia, living off British love of political ambiguity. While there’s a certain assumption that Brexit is the stuff of farce, this show is not political polemic. The pointed observation that the referendum result saw many British establishments lose brought a hush to the theatre.

Gussie McCraig is trembling with red-faced outrage in his tweed and red corduroys, in his one- man turn at the podium in The Laird’s Big Breaxit. From “Perth-shire”, as he pronounces it, he is briefing the Stags’ Club on a new patriotic effort to rally the rural economy, with hunting with hounds, and other alliterations. With his own-brand whisky on the table and heather on the podium, he puts the “rrrr” back in Brrrexit, fixing us with a squirrel eye and a stammer, yet once his blue blood is up, he can be puffingly persuasive.

The plot twists in this one-man pastiche of the Scottish Brexiteer are occasionally unsubtle – domestic tragedy, surreptitious bursts of bigotry, sexual inadequacy, funnier hinted at than spelled out – but Gussie, played by Christopher Craig, is a one-man blast of simple pleasure, and can only get funnier. He has completely mastered this character, in this piece written by Donald Smith, with a look and tone that’s delicious to watch. I badly want to see him back again; Gussie could run and run. If you are seeking an after- dinner speaker to stir all True Blue patriots, look no further.

Were Gussie ever to meet his nemesis, in the figure of Cecilia Gragnani, he’d be bowled right over. Diary of an Expat is based on the actress’s own arrival in Britain in 2007, a sweet exposure of an immigrant’s dream of Britain. She comes armed with the Life in the UK Handbook, the text for the Life in the UK test for permanent residents. And yes, it does include that question on the Trossachs.

Cecilia tells of her starry-eyed journey to the El Dorado across the Channel, to the reality of service jobs and tiny rooms in the most dangerous areas of London. But she loves it here, from her first sausage roll, to the real meaning of “lovely”, to her glottal-stopping British lover. Caught wistfully like any immigrant between her old home and her new, this “chubby Italian” with the faintest middle-European accent just wants to be British. Directed by Katharina Reinthaller, the show is supported by a fund set up in the memory of the young Italian couple who died in each other’s arms in the Grenfell Towers.

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There is a faint Weimar feel to Diary of an Expat; a passing era of European tolerance under threat. That Cabaret feel is served up in spades in Jonny Woo’s All Star Brexit Cabaret. Here’s the full Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Sound of Brexit, with a bit of Eva Peron chucked in. Jonny Woo, comedian and drag queen, had me at ‘Hello’, from sequins to the layers of Union Jack tutu. He injected The Leaver’s Lullaby with all the passion of Julie Andrews. The show is composed by Richard Thomas, of Jerry Springer the Opera fame, notable for the Oh Sh*t lament and some wonderful multi-part numbers.

This piece doesn’t project Brexit forward, like the play at Pleasance, so feels fractionally dated. It makes a nod to the politics of both sides, but leaves that question-mark over whether the 52 percent might be marching to different tunes. But Woo and friends belt it out unstoppably: Jersey Boy Adam Perchard, tragically soulful as The First Time Voter, torn between two lovers. Sooz Kempner is in magnificent voice, singing Cameron Shy, with a chorus of pigs. Both Le Gateau Chocolat as Nigel Farage and Kevin Davies are in excellent form, the latter playing both a slick-suited Brexiteer and a persuasive intellectual Remainer. Angela Merkel, an inevitable character in any Brexit drama, is played by Carla Lippis singing Mama Eurovision.

If Brexit lives up to some of the warnings now emanating from Westminster, and the business community – jobs shocks in the City, five-mile lorry queues, civil unrest or shortages of food or medicines – there may be a different tone to Brexit shows next year. But for now the Fringe is a safer place for the Brexit discussion too tired for the dinner table. These Brexit dramas all delivered wonderfully in their own way. If we can’t make Britain great again, we can at least make it funny.

Brexit until 26 August, 1:30pm; The Laird’s Big Breaxit until 27 August, 1:30pm; Diary of an Expat until 26 August, 1pm; Jonny Woo’s All Star Cabaret until 27 August, 6pm.