Ron Davis’ Symphronica, Scottish Arts Club (Venue 310) ****
Basking in the wonderfully wayward eclecticism of Ron Davis’ Symphronica amid the picture hung premises of the Scottish Arts Club, you’re never quite sure whether you might get an eruption of all-out jazz fusion or a tea dance.
Making their third visit to the Fringe, this amiably eccentric yet musically venturesome fusion band combines string quartet with jazz piano, double, bass electric guitar and drums. The Toronto-based octet have enlisted two familiar Scots jazz names, drummer Tom Bancroft and swing-fiddler and singer Seonaid Aitken, the latter here playing viola with the quartet.
Led by the cheerfully ebullient Canadian pianist and composer Davis, with guitarist Kevin Barrett and double-bassist Emma Smith, they launched into a rollicking samba, followed by what they described as a “derangement “of Miles Davis’ classic So What, demonstrating that this is some funky salon orchestra, with spiky guitar lines, piano jabs, cymbal flicker and resonant bass gelling with the string sound.
There was a springy encounter between Bach and 1930s gypsy jazz and a sumptuously floating ballad inspired by the 19th-century Canadian poet Émile Nelligan, with its gentle drift of strings over piano and hi-hat. They really got going, however, with a muscular deconstruction of Be Happy, deftly ranging keyboard work and agile bass urging on the whole ensemble, and a wonderful excursion that hijacked an unsuspecting North African Sephardic tune and put it through Stravinsky-esque hoops, the whole ensemble working up a pulsing, slamming drive worthy of Rite of Spring.
Just occasionally there might have been a little more improvisational fluidity to some of the string players’ breaks; otherwise, there’s a terrific buzz about this outfit, not to mention that enjoyably intimate, salon vibe.
• Until 18 August, 9pm
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Violet, Zoo Southside (Venue 82) ****
Everyone’s telling her to do yoga, but no one’s explaining how she’s supposed to pay for it. 27-year-old Bertie has lost her job, boyfriend and flat in London and she feels like nothing’s worth anything. “If I’m not an editorial assistant, who am I?” she says, so painfully inward-looking it seems to have etched a permanent scowl into her soul.
Written and performed by Bebe Sanders, this is the kind of play that seems designed to provoke anyone any older than it’s protagonist to start silently screaming at the stage, as they embark upon a mental battle with this world-weary young woman to see who can become the most cynical person in the room.
However, when Bertie moves to her friend’s house at the seaside and meets Violet, a woman in her 70s with an intriguing past and a refreshingly open mind, a small but sweet myself story develops into a tale of an unlikely friendship between two women who have vastly different experiences and perspectives, but also a lot in common.
The rumbling music of Glenn Miller and other classic big bands builds between scenes and, soon, Bertie and Violet are taking dance classes together and hanging out like flatmates. Almost inevitably, Bertie comes to realise that her problems aren’t that bad after all – and that maybe exercise really is the answer, or at least part of it. Either way, when she’s finally able to let go and dance, it’s a great moment.
While the writing at times is too focused on descriptive dialogue over real drama, the piece builds at its own quiet pace to some touching moments which celebrate a refreshingly original friendship between an older and younger woman – both able to offer each other something the other doesn’t have – in a way that you rarely see on stage.
• Until 18 August, 9:55pm
Two-Man, One-Man, Greenside @ Infirmary Street (Venue 236) ****
Over at Greenside, a venue where the original spirit of the Edinburgh Fringe lives on, this spoof of a one-man show has found an ideal home among the bunting.
At the start, a man who describes himself as “a cool kind of stage manager” is forced to admit that two performers have booked the same hour-long slot we’re about to see. His solution? They can perform together, in ten-minute alternating chunks. The only problem is one of them, Arnold, has written a po-faced semi-political drama about his angst as a privileged white male growing up post-9/11, and the other, Miles, is a stand-up comedian trying and failing to get over the fact his girlfriend has dumped him by launching half-thought out ‘topical’ jokes, like grenades, on the audience and shoe-horning in ways to interact with them.
The show-within-a-show’s real-life writer/performers, Patrick Romano and Benjamin Behrend, make lots of funny and astute observations about men on stage, as their characters increasingly undermine and attack one another. Joined by Joe Miciak, the show is performed with a wry smile, professional polish and some great uses of verbal, physical and props-based comedy.
Both of the performers are clowns; just different types. The seamless mix of writing and improvisation explores the potential and limitations of both drama and comedy for communicating stories. Fittingly, at the end, the two men join forces to tick off a final theatrical trope: they ‘learn something’. Cue a musical number, based upon the classic comedy double- acts of stage and screen – a clever, funny and entertaining end to a show that doesn’t take itself at all seriously, but nevertheless still has interesting things to say.
• Until 18 August, 10:05pm
Century Song, Zoo Southside (Venue 82) ****
On the stage at the former church building occupied by the Zoo Southside venue, a young woman dances with elegant assurance, although there is pain and trouble in her vocal performance as well. At times, the full-length backdrop screen behind her gives the impression the stage is growing, first into a wooded glade and later into a variety of rooms occupied by various figures. The people in these simple animations are all played by the dancer herself, an array of black North American women whose attire places them at various stages within the past century.
If there’s any one element of this dance piece by singer and dancer Neema Bickersteth which doesn’t transmit emphatically, it’s the advertised mission to fully encompass the experience of black women throughout that period of time. There are strong suggestions, certainly, not least a very powerful early sequence where Bickersteth appears in grey fatigues and headscarf, whistling out a delicate lament with a minimum of movement, captured amid a tortured point in black American history. In short, this piece isn’t so much a documentary evocation of events from the past as it is an emotional expression of the weight of history which Bickersteth feels behind her.
On this score it truly delivers. She is a dancer of effortless physicality and weightless grace, and her operatic soprano voice is a rich, otherworldly instrument.
There are no words in her performance, only the vocalisation of sounds which emulate words, with a collection of hums and whistles which coalesce into tunes.
Presented by the Toronto-based Volcano Theatre in association with CanadaHub, the piece – which is much more dance than theatre, despite the Fringe programme’s positioning of it amid the latter – is directed by Ross Manson and choreographed by Kate Alton.
All concerned, including live musicians Gregory Oh and Ben Goodman, who plays music by composers from Rachmaninoff to Cage, contribute something essential and atmospheric to the piece, yet it’s Bickersteth’s presence which binds them together with real, contemplative grace and power.
• Until 18 August, 3pm
Lady Rizo: Red, White and Indigo, Assembly Hall (Venue 35) ****
These are rough times to be an American who cares about things like diversity, empathy or truth. In her latest set, Lady Rizo – a consistently dazzling star in the cabaret firmament – offers a bittersweet survey of the state of her native union, casting a rueful eye over a country gone astray.
Rizo frames this as an “international apology tour” on behalf of the US, and there’s much to be down about, from mass shootings to abortion rights to the global ructions sparked by the angry tangerine in the White House. Even so, she couldn’t deliver a sombre or demoralising hour if she tried and, savvy critiques notwithstanding, Red, White and Indigo proves to be an uproarious, foot-stomping and ultimately inspirational show.
As always, Rizo’s superb voice is put to canny use with a mixture of original numbers and ingenious mash-ups and cover versions. The Star-Spangled Banner is fused with Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues to scathing effect while a leftfield mixture of Nancy Sinatra and D’Angelo generates a tragically two-sided vignette of gun violence. (It also gives Rizo the opportunity to demonstrate how to sing the word “shit” over five syllables.) The novel combination of Portishead and Peggy Lee, meanwhile, conveys the disillusionment and defiance associated with the ongoing oppression of women. In between, there are musings on the all-American values of privilege, patriotism and fame.
Witty, glamorous and musically gifted as she might be, Lady Rizo’s real superpower is her ability to turn an audience into a miniature world of mutual care and wider responsibility. So it proves here in the show’s climax, in which Rizo elegantly reclaims some tarnished American iconography with a hand from the crowd. It’s just about enough to keep despair at bay in favour of loving resolution. Where there’s light, there’s hope.
• Until 19 August, 9:10pm
Other People’s Teeth, C aquila (Venue 21) ****
She asks: would you kill me if I ask you? He’s into killing out of curiosity: how is it to live, knowing you’re about to die. She started with a dog, to put a creature out of its misery, then she got that tingling feeling in her fingers. He’s into teeth. She’s into eyes.
Other People’s Teeth starts from a Hollywood premise: a partnership between two contract killers, Joss and Sol. A Mexican stand-off, with plastic guns, in a tiny room upstairs at C venues? Ho-hum. Then your ears prick up.
Into the mix of these bedsit killers comes Simon, who likes board games, crosswords but not cross words, and complex fractions of chocolate cake. Dan Sareen plays him as a wonderful straight man to murderous insanity; he’s also the writer. Joss (Becky Downing) is as cold as a steak knife, but pauses to play with a new puppy. It’s all thoroughly entertaining, and definitely not for the squeamish.
Tom Claxton, as Sol, delivers a nasty, utterly persuasive killer, the pivot of the piece. A ginger-haired laughing Norman Bates, he wears Hawaiian shirts and likes to play with his food in the hope it will bite back. It’s a difficult role, between sneering and slaughter. Claxton tells me he’s off to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art; I’d say that’s a good call by their admissions office.
• Until 19 August, 2:35pm
Thrown by Jodi Gray, Underbelly, Cowgate (Venue 61) ****
This is what Jodi Gray and Living Record Productions’ thoughtful, at times unsettling, and extremely distinctive piece of sci-fi theatre asks of its audience and, with the help of an open mind, it’s a highly immersive experience – the kind of show that suits the dark damp of the Underbelly so well.
A softly spoken woman steps out from the shadows and tells us she is a doctor. Surrounding her are model heads, one of which she speaks to. This is a recording, she explains; they – or maybe we – are being recorded. In this space, both time and individual identities are fluid. As the headphones turn us all into interchangeable heads, Gray’s elusive dialogue merges with Chris Drohan’s evocative soundscape until it’s unclear what is happening when and where.
At the end, we learn that the piece is based on interviews with older women, but it has more in common with the philosophical hypereality of Dennis Potter’s Cold Lazarus than the dry naturalism associated with conventional verbatim theatre. Jill Rutland’s charismatic performance draws out themes of ageing, memory and death to create the mood, if not the structure, of a ghost story. “Nothing bad is going to happen”, is repeated towards the end – but it doesn’t entirely convince.
Striking but disconnected images, including the sky folding in on itself and a child deciding to grow up, are left hanging in the air. It’s not a show that feels a need to fully explain itself – and the doctor and her work remain tantalisingly mysterious – but as an existential experience, it’s a piece that creates a refreshing space for late-night contemplation and stillness in a busy festival.
• Until 19 August, 8:50pm