Edinburgh Fringe theatre reviews: Unforgettable Girl | SHOWSTOPPER | Scent | CREEKSHOW | My Father’s Nose
Unforgettable Girl ****
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33) until 28 August
How to describe Unforgettable Girl, the debut show from RADA-trained performer Elisabeth Gunawan? A silly, low-fi show that makes little sense? An anarchic hour of performance art about the objectification and abuse of East Asian women? Or, as Gunawan herself puts it, “trash theatre”?
All of those descriptions work. The show – one of this year’s winners of Pleasance’s Charlie Harthill Fund – essentially sees Gunawan fool about scenographer Erin Guan’s cheap, cardboard-box set. Under the direction of female-led, Lecoq-trained physical theatre company Created A Monster, she delivers a series of disconcerting skits and scenes and regularly wrongfoots her audience with rapid, thrilling shifts in tone, assisted throughout by the pointedly silent Kyll Anthony Thomas Cole.
For a while, Gunawan playfully pokes her audience, asking them amusingly uncomfortable questions: “How much tax do you pay? Do you enjoy being white? What do you enjoy about it?” Then, for a while, she brilliantly impersonates us patting ourselves on the back for being such good people and coming to see such diverse, experimental art. It is exquisitely needling stuff.
The main plot, though – if you can call it that – sees Gunawan play a mail-order Thai bride. Dressed in a skimpy wedding dress, she uses small-scale projection, recorded audio, mask-work and more to explore the dehumanising experience of being seen and sold as a commodity for rich, white men. It is an appalling expose, made all the more disturbing by the broad grin Gunawan wears for most of it.
There is a lot more to unpack here, a lot more to grapple with – about privilege and power and ethnicity and exploitation. Plenty of people will think this is a weird mess of a show. Some – including this reviewer – will think it is a wonderful, exhilarating, uncomfortable mess of a show. Fergus Morgan
Gilded Balloon Teviot (Venue 14) until 28 August
This show couldn't work without an audience and sometimes it doesn't work at all - but that's the point. The Fringe is awash with self-possessed young performers convinced of their own talent but Isabel Klein is different in that she is more convinced of it than most and on less apparent evidence too. To be clear: that's Isabel, the character in this charmingly awkward self-consciously self-aggrandising one-woman show. Klein, the performer is already a pretty successful American actress with a pretty impressive collection of screen credits - commercials mainly but a Lifetime movie too.
Isabel, the star of this show, however, is VERY similar but rather more hapless and awkward yet grimly convinced of her own stardom even as things go increasingly wrong and her talents - and self-confidence - become ever more thinly stretched. This is endearingly stupid stuff with an interesting tension; Klein's material isn't THAT good because Isabel's wouldn't be either but she does give good klutz. Rather than punching down at less-talented performers who put on a solo show, you get the impression that this is an exercise in self-lacerating cringe comedy although Klein is such a charming stage presence that you can't help but root for her and hope that she - and Isabel - succeed. Rory Ford
Greenside @ Infirmary Street (Venue 236) until 26 August
The olfactory sense is one of the strongest conductors of memory, we are told early on in Stacey Cullen’s solo show, her debut on the Fringe. She plays Jaime, who meets her partner of seven years sitting on a friend’s porch drinking bad red wine that “smelt like someone had spilt a Manhattan on a picnic table”. They fall in love and open a boutique grocery store. He bakes, she trains as a sommelier. Then, one night, he is killed in an accident outside their house.
Scent is beautifully written, and Cullen plays her character with grace, making bread while she tells her story, as if we were guests at a demonstration she is giving. She is good on the senselessness of death, the fierce anger of new grief, and on descriptions of food and wine which you can taste and smell.
The problem is that the show ends too soon, and too abruptly, in a painful grief-laden stasis. While there is, of course, some truth to this in human experience, it does not make satisfying theatre. With talent as promising as this, one hopes she can find the time and inspiration to bake this particular loaf of bread to completion. Susan Mansfield
Zoo Southside (Venue 82) until 27 August
Mid-way through CREEKSHOW there is a fantasy about sinking deep into the muddy creek bed. First feet, then thighs, then hips, then head, all enveloped by the cool, slimy strata. Jenny Witzel creates a dreamlike state with just a re-verbed mic and simple, hypnotic videography, inviting her listeners to commune with the stories lurking beneath the surface.
Written and performed by Witzel, this Fringe debut springs from the two years she lived on a houseboat on Deptford Creek – until the landlord sold to a developer and she got evicted. The show slips from a historical prologue about Deptford’s social history into autobiography, folklore, and speculation: Witzel’s eloquent, essayistic prose plucks mud-rusted artefacts from the creek bed and uses them to blend fact and fiction, wondering aloud about mermaids, oyster-shucking sex workers and mysterious Victorian dock labourers.
Directed by Luke Lewin Davies and with subtle sound design by Calum Perrin, CREEKSHOW showcases Witzel as a striking, composed performer. It is a luxuriously slow show, as if wandering the riverbed in real-time, but this serenity also sacrifices any sense of tension. Nevertheless, Witzel’s connection to the tides feels heart-wrenchingly special, and a poignant depiction of what is lost when local histories are forcefully overwritten by gentrification. Katie Hawthorne
My Father’s Nose ***
Assembly Rooms (Venue 20) until 27 August
Here is a sweet, slight slice of comedy-drama, perfect for anyone looking for an early-evening theatrical aperitif. Written by actor and improviser Douglas Walker, My Father’s Nose is a warm, witty two-hander about fatherhood and grief that has been polished to a slickly staged shine.
Two strangers meet on a park bench. He is grieving his late father. She wants to comfort him. He explains that he is especially upset because, as he sat by his father’s deathbed, he played a game of “got your nose” with him but was unable to replace his dad’s proboscis prior to his death. His father’s nose, then – i.e. his own thumb – remains stuck between his index and middle fingers.
This quirky scenario sparks a conversation about family and ageing and love and loss and everything in between. Interweaving this chat, the two performers – Walker himself and Caitlin Campbell – smoothly slide into our nameless, thumb-snatching protagonist’s memories of his dad. They swap roles, sing snatches of songs, and map out their father-son relationship over several decades.
Walker and Campbell are excellent – naturalistic, with an endearing chemistry – and My Father’s Nose emerges as an easy and affecting hour, full of cute moments, wry humour and sad smiles. Fergus Morgan