Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre, dance, musicals & opera reviews: Maureen | Bird | Irrepressible | Under the Mirrie Dancers | Uisge | Verity/Dexter

An eccentric solo show about an octogenarian glamour queen brings the history and characters of Sydney’s gay quarter to life – just one highlight of our latest wide-ranging Fringe round-up. Words by Susan Mansfield, David Pollock, Suzanne O'Brien and Ariane Branigan


Maureen ****

House of Oz (Venue 73) until 27 August

Maureen is “a working-class glamour queen” in her mid-80s living in Sydney’s Kings Cross, once the city’s red light district and gay quarter. For 80 or so minutes, we are her guests as she holds court, passes round crackers and gets a young man in the audience to light her cigarette.

Writer and performer Jonny Hawkins, who conceived the show with director Nell Ranney, says, yes, there was a real Maureen, although the character is an amalgam of feisty, funny older women they have known.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Maureen warns us this conversation might take a while, and it does. She digresses freely on trivialities, spends a long time telling us about her cat. She can be downright eccentric (she hoards cat hair for an unspecified “plan”), but is also capable of being shockingly profound in her observations. She has, she says, a disconcerting knack for knowing when her friends will die.

Designer Isabel Hudson evokes Maureen’s apartment with a gorgeous flood of velvet fabric which covers the stage. When Hawkins steps in to character, they wrap themselves in it, the body and the room become one. And the room becomes, in turn, a microcosm for the faded art deco apartment building, and for the tawdry glamour of Kings Cross in its heyday, a place where people who didn’t fit the mould could live the way they chose.

Jonny Hawkins as MaureenJonny Hawkins as Maureen
Jonny Hawkins as Maureen

Maureen’s stately, drifting monologue isn’t big on structure. At one point, she hands round her contacts book and tells us about the people whose names we pick out. Her stories are often poignant, occasionally outrageous; there are some heavier revelations packed in towards the end.

Cumulatively, it starts to feel like the stuff of a life – one with a forthright disregard for convention and a fierce belief in dignity, neither of which has dimmed with age. Susan Mansfield


Bird ****

Summerhall (Venue 26) until 27 August

As artistic director of her own Slough-based Amina Khayyam Dance Company, Khayyam has choreographed a piece for three dancers built around a delicacy and femininity of movement, which occasionally bursts into suggestions of fear and violence. Its opening moments frame this tableau on the stage, as one performer leans back, mouth frozen open in shock and agony as the other dancers move around her, their hands fluttering like birds.

The three dancers (Jane Chan, Jalpa Vala and Khayyam herself, who is maternity-covering for the usual performer in the role) wear long dresses in complimentary, earthy tones, and they pirouette together and apart in graceful harmony. Their costume is key to the aesthetic of their Indian kathak-influenced performance, masking the movement of their legs and feet, instead drawing attention to the wing-like shapes made by their arms as they attempt to break free from their situation.

First formulated in a women’s community group workshop in which one of the participants asked “what happens to a woman when she runs away from domestic abuse?”, this powerful and captivating piece explores the body language of women going through this experience. They grow from cowed meekness to a necessary discovery of strength and physical uprightness as they find their courage and spread their metaphorical wings.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Throughout, there are suggestions of fear and danger, as characters clutch hands to their throat, make a gun with their fingers and stamp noisily upon the floor. There are three men on stage with the dancers – tabla player Debasish Mukherjee, cellist Iain McHugh and sitar player Alec Cooper, creating an odd but satisfying Indian-Celtic bed of sound – but they remain invisible in darkness at the back of the stage until the end, the better to emphasis the feminine power at the heart of the show. David Pollock


Irrepressible ***

theSpace @ Niddry Street (Venue 9) until 26 August

Famous – or perhaps more correctly, infamous – as the mistress of Lord Nelson, Emma Hamilton was a renowned society beauty with lovers in high places around the turn of the 19th century. According to this new musical play about her life – from writer and lyricist Gillian Lacey-Solemar and composers Carrie Penn and Toby Heulin – she was the world’s first celebrity. The show tries to reclaim her experience and agency from the straitjacket of history.

Fringe trends are in the midst of a transitional moment, where the plethora of confessional solo shows with 20-something female lead characters in the mould of Fleabag are being supplanted by hopeful musicals on esoteric subjects (ideally with a historic, feminist slant) in the hope of following the success of Six the Musical. Irrepressible – in which world-weary contemporary journalist Beth (Molly Lydon) travels back in time to secure the interview of a lifetime with Beth – is clearly cut from this cloth, but we won’t hold its major influence against it.

Told in rhyming couplets and song, with a bright central performance from Caitlyn Calfas, it is a suitably professional production with a winning sense of humour; the uneven love triangle between Emma, her husband Sir William Hamilton (Hari Chandresh) and Nelson (Davide Valenti) is particularly good fun. If West End producers are interested, they’ve left their contacts in the programme for you. David Pollock


Under the Mirrie Dancers ***

Laughing Horse @ The Three Sisters (Venue 272) until 27 August

Brother and sister Vaila and Ewan are waiting for a delayed ferry back to Shetland for their mother’s funeral. In this play by young Shetland writer Juliet Mullay, the delay becomes a space to work out some tough questions about their relationship with each other, their mother, Evie, and the islands where they grew up.

Mullay and Sam Austin-Eames lead a cast of six in this Free Fringe production directed by Tom McGoldrick which also incorporates short pieces of film and Shetland music. It is an uneven piece. Some scenes work better than others, but in the best – at Ewan’s job in the care home, for example – the play truly comes alive.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

As well as a place to explore complex feelings – what does it mean to grieve for someone who doesn’t deserve it? – it is about the vexed question of home. Shetland comes across vividly, less in the film clips than in Vaila and Ewan’s love-hate relationship with it. And even once they’ve stripped away the romanticism for the remoteness, starry skies, eccentric locals, the islands are still there, drawing them home. Susan Mansfield


Uisge **

theSpace @ Surgeons Hall (Venue 53) until 26 August

Emma McQuillan's light-hearted script shows promise with its interesting mix of characters and rural Scottish setting. However, it is let down by clunky transitions and choreographed elements that seem forced.

Ichigo Theatre Company's piece centres on journalist Emory (Paddy Merritt) who during his time in a remote village tasks himself with discovering what actually happened one tragic evening many years ago. Merritt is witty as the struggling and relatable journalist and does well to keep the piece moving.

The whole cast give committed performances but the playing of multiple roles proves difficult. There needs to be clearer differences between characters for the piece to have clarity, especially as it frequently shifts back and forth in time. Suzanne O'Brien


Verity/Dexter **

theSpace @ Symposium Hall – Annexe (Venue 43) until 26 August

Verity/Dexter tells the story of a failed relationship from two different perspectives – that of the jilted bride and the troubled groom – on alternating nights. It’s an intriguing idea, but unfortunately one which leaves us with little emotional attachment to either character.

As we only get a cursory insight into the motivations and feelings of one partner after they've already broken up, it's difficult to be invested in whether they'll get back together or not. The entire cast has plenty of energy and chemistry with each other. Sadly, the production is let down by an underwhelming plot. Ariane Branigan