Edinburgh Fringe reviews: Woodhill | Bowjangles | Choir! Choir! Choir! | What Can Indian Look Like? | Lost Soles

In this latest Fringe round-up, our critics review a heart-rending piece of physical theatre about prison suicide and get to grips with harmonies as part of a show about choir singing

Woodhill, Summerhall (Venue 26) ****

Until 27 August

As the audience arrives, three performers busy themselves on stage surrounded by shelves covered in cardboard boxes. They look like workers in a warehouse but we soon learn that the boxes are a metaphor – for being boxed in, for having a label that defines you stuck in plain view, and for the way a prisoner’s possessions can be contained in a single box after their death.

Four years in the making, this hugely important show has tragedy at its core, both personally and socially. Woodhill gets its title from the men’s high-security prison in Milton Keynes, where more men have taken their own lives than in any other prison in England. Inquests regularly point the finger at failures within Woodhill itself, whilst acknowledging the entire criminal justice system had a role to play. As did the life choices available to those offenders before they ended up on the wrong side of the law.

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All this and more is played out during 75 minutes of compelling physical theatre, by the end of which you’ll have tears in your eyes and anger in your heart. Focussing on three men who were found dead in their cells in the past decade, we meet family members irrevocably changed by their suicide and fighting for justice. A mother, a sister and a step-brother share their experience through verbatim voiceovers, while three performers onstage act out their words – and pain – with non-verbal movement. We also hear from prison staff, academics and other experts calling for penal reform.

Meanwhile, a fourth performer regularly tucks their hand in their pocket and throws petals into the air each time the name of an inmate who died at their own hand is read out. It’s powerful and affecting stuff – and unlike the hours passed in its namesake, watching Woodhill is time well spent. Kelly Apter

Bowjangles: Dracula in Space, Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose (Venue 24) ***

Chris Otim (front) and Marina Climent (back) in Woodhill. Picture: Alex PowellChris Otim (front) and Marina Climent (back) in Woodhill. Picture: Alex Powell
Chris Otim (front) and Marina Climent (back) in Woodhill. Picture: Alex Powell

Until 27 August

There’s a deftly daft energy to this celebration of gratuitous violins from the 2018 Spirit of the Fringe winners; it can’t help but win you over. The title here IS the full plot as the talented string quartet, fed up of doing corporate gigs, encounter the S.S. Demeter – in space! – and its sole passenger, Dr. A. Cula. (Bertie Anderson Haggart).

This has the loose-limbed feel of a kid’s show but all the evidence of rigorous rehearsal, attention to detail and real talent. Not simply classically trained musicians, Bowjangles incorporate elements of physical theatre and really inventive stagecraft, but always with the emphasis on comedy. It’s knowingly extremely silly but also unafraid of pulling off some elegant moments. Haggart is well cast as Dracula as her singing voice has a ringing operatic clarity and the evocation of her siren call she makes as she presses the outline of her face against a screen is a memorable effect.

Remarkably, the show was put together between 2020 - 2021 over Zoom with the quartet somehow managing to find a way to rehearse together remotely. If this perhaps shows a little in the “anything goes” structure of the show it’s certainly not evident in the obvious joy that they take in performing together. Rory Ford

Choir! Choir! Choir!, Underbelly, George Square (Venue 300) ***

Until 27 August

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Do you like singing lustily in a group? Does the person you are with like singing lustily in a group? Choir! Choir! Choir! is designed for the keen vocalist and their reluctant partner alike. Conceived by Daveed Goldman and Nobu Adilman in 2011, this Canadian choral show is a moveable feast, though our two hosts are still getting the lie of the land in Presbyterian Edinburgh. Scottish audiences like singing Scottish songs, right? They’ve got Scottish songs. They also have American songs. And Swedish songs (guess whose?).

There is only so much coaching Goldman and Adilman can reasonably get through in one hour so the key is choosing songs the majority of the audience already know, then dividing them down the middle, teaching a simple harmony part and letting rip, massaoke-style, with acoustic guitar accompaniment. There is no sitting down on the job for the choir/audience and no time to waste in getting that dopamine flowing. It all feels a bit of a vocal blur and before you know it you are on stage performing the encore and wondering where your nearest local choir meets. A simple pleasure with potentially deeper resonances. Fiona Shepherd

What Can Indian Look Like? Greenside @ Nicolson Square (Venue 209) ***

Until 26 August

Shaharah Gaznabbi’s nervous energy fills the room as they enter, an ancient cassette player in their arms. For Shaharah, navigating their identity as a Guyanese-Canadian of Indian descent is like playing the ‘floor is lava’ game: a fraught exercise, full of potential missteps. Are they allowed to claim an Indian heritage, or would it be considered cultural appropriation? Can they maintain their Caribbean traditions, despite being told they’re ‘too brown’ to be Guyanese?

In order to find their way forward, the first place they must go is back. Stored within the cassette player are conversations Shaharah has had with their family regarding their shared history. Over the next hour, Shaharah recreates these conversations and unravels its implications to the room, allowing its complexities to breathe without forcing any conclusions.

Most of these chats follow familiar, amiable paths; the greatest tension arises when Shaharah discusses their queerness with their father, a devout Muslim. Even this, however, is rendered with utmost gentleness and understanding, which is in itself the production’s greatest strength. For as interesting as it is to learn about Shaharah’s family in the context of colonial history, getting to know the kind of person each of them are individually is by far the most appealing part. What this open-hearted love letter of a show lacks in propulsion or narrative tension, it makes up for in genuine warmth. Deborah Chu

Lost Soles, Assembly Roxy (Venue 139) ***

Until 28 August

There’s a gentle charm to this one-man show that is quietly beguiling. Thaddeus McWhinnie Phillips, tap dancer and storyteller, has carved aspects from his own life to help tell this tale, and it’s all the richer for it.

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The central focus is Leonard, a dancer from Wyoming whose almost glittering stage career in the 1960s took him to New York’s Carnegie Hall before he crashed and burned. We journey back in time to Leonard’s early tap classes, starting with his grandmother who (like McWhinnie Phillips’ actual grandma) performed alongside star Donald O’Connor in Vaudeville. Then we move to present day, where Leonard’s connection to Cuba is raising some federal eyebrows.

Despite the simplicity of this tale, the staging is elaborate. A tall shelving unit turns into a table, a washing line pulley is stretched across the stage, and various posters, boxes and tap shoes are brought in and out of use. But with only him to set up each new scene, these transitions can feel sluggish and clunky. What feels anything but clunky is McWhinnie Phillips’ own tap dancing – delivered on a variety of surfaces – and his comic wit, which although used sparingly, is a delight when it comes. Kelly Apter

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