Wednesday, August 17, 2016

"Day Seven: The 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival"

2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #24
Great Expectations
Peter Fanning (Book): John Moore (Music)

Taking one of the most beloved novels of all times and its two-dozen-plus major characters – several now iconic in their own rights – and turning that classic into a new musical with soaring music and a comprehensible book is quite a daunting task.  When the impressive world premiere has been written by faculty and produced by the students of a secondary school and then presented for the world to judge at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, then the accomplishment is even more impressive.  But for England’s Shrewsbury School, this is just the next in a long stream of Fringe appearances and premieres going back to 1993; and their latest musical, Great Expectations (Peter Fanning, book, and John Moore, music) takes the Charles Dickens treasured tome and breathes new light and insight into its well-known, much-read story.

For those needing a refresher, this is the story of orphaned Pip, raised in Kent by his cranky aunt and her big-hearted blacksmith husband, Joe.  In the opening of the story, Pip meets an escaped convict, Magwitch, in a church graveyard and steals sustenance for his hunger to help the poor man out.  Pip soon happens into service with an eccentric lady, Miss Haversham, who wears always an old, tattered wedding gown and lives in a large house full of “beetles and bats, shadows and rats” with a young, beautiful girl named Estrella.  Pip is employed to play with Estrella; and even at a young age, he falls in love with her.  Miss Haversham, who was once spurned by a no-show groom-to-be, is raising Estrella to woo and then reject and break as many hearts, like Pip’s, as possible, for payback for her life of disappointment.

Pip’s fortune shifts even more when he is informed by a London lawyer named Jaggers that he has an anonymous benefactor who is providing him a small fortune if he will head to the big city and engage a tutor to become a gentleman.  Off Pip does go, and the adventures of a life continue with many twists and turns, ups and downs, but with a goal always in Pip’s mind of returning and marrying Estrella.

From their opening lines of “homeward on a journey across the sea,” the full twenty-plus ensemble excels when singing as a mass choir in its full-sounding, perfectly blended harmonies.  On stage for most of the play as both participants and as mindful observers, the cast members bring collectively strong voices and good abilities in the inventive choreography that has them crawling about on stage as part of seedy London’s underbelly, falling over themselves in drunken good time while belting “A Bumper of Wine,” or cutting a rug in twenties style while jazzily singing “The Aristocratic Rag.”

Pip is ably and sensitively played in both his young and older selves by Toby Pattinson and Luke Lloyd Jones, respectively.  Mr. Jones in particular shines forth time and again in songs like “Estrella” with naturally clear vocals that seem always to have power to spare without any sense of ever over-singing.  Rony Dootson as Joe is the life-long friend any boy would die to have, and his solos are rendered with full heart and soul of a good man.  Cury Cabral brings a solid, deep voice for Pip’s lawyer, Jaggers, while Angus Kincaid is the escaped convict Magwitch whose rough ways and swaggers and raw, guttural voice of song hide the gratitude that he will one day show young Pip.

Emily Skelton rarely stops twisting madly her never-used wedding veil as she displays both the pitiful and the spiteful states of the elderly Miss Haversham.  Antonia Wordie is her ward, Estrella, and has a haunting, isolated sense about her as she watches first with scorned puzzlement and then with increasing interest the rapped attention Pip gives her from the start.  When she and Pip reunite in later years, her voice rings true as she sings of her love for that boy, now this man.

The one issue of this production is that most of the story is sung, often in dense and fast-sung lyrics.  At times, whether by certain soloists or by full chorus, the gist of the message is clear; but specific details are difficult to discern. 

The gifted chorus reminds us at the end that we have witnessed “the journey of a lifetime, when you grow to be a man;” and they and Pip teach us in this well-trod, but newly focused story of Great Expectations that “there’s a time for forgiving and being forgiven.”

Rating: 4 E


2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #25
Poena 5X1, or How I Came to Agree with Right-Wing Thinking
Abbie Spallen

A woman dressed smartly in expensive business attire begins to provide what appears at first to be a lecture behind a high-styled lectern.  Her subject is discussion of her ten years research for a government agency, hunting for a “pharmaceutical for humane punishment” specifically geared to reduce prison over-crowding.  Cathy Conneff presents the world premiere (commissioned by Inside Intelligence Theatre and written by Abbie Spallen) of Poena 5X1, or How I Came to Agree with Right-Wing Thinking in what at first begins in a formal manner with some conversational undertones, as if she is talking to a group of known colleagues.  As the intensity of her message continues, who we are as audience becomes cloudier until an ending where our roles are starkly clear.

Poena 5X1 is political, sexual, and highly personal all at the same time.  What is an ethical dilemma and how is one to react to such when faced with choices is the underlying theme of the speaker and her monologue.  This is a scientist who sees herself as once liberal and whose personal mission it once was to create “a drug to boil the mind” but an experience that would not be remembered.

In a pace calculated, full of nervously smiled pauses, and dripping with tension, Ms. Conneff presents her case, including how a governmental minister above her wants to alter her discovery of a humane punishment in order to increase the profits potential in a global market.  (After all, the U.S. would never go for a punishment that the criminal did not remember.)  What happens when Ms. Conneff finds herself in bed in a mutually agreed afternoon tryst is when this liberal takes on some conservative mannerisms of getting even.

While Ms. Conneff is electric in her presentation, the piece itself does not do enough to engender the kind of conversation and questions that a new work dealing with such subjects as government-sponsored research of punishment drugs should.  In the end, there is much potential for Poena 5X1, or How I Came to Agree with Right-Wing Thinking, but the piece feels under-developed and still needing work at this point.

Rating: 2 E


2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #26
Andy Platt
Penistone Community Arts of Penistone, South Yorkshire

It is 1682 in Thurlstone, Yorkshire.  The ‘Act of Toleration’ now grants the right to worship to non-conformists; but the sour-faced, holier-than-thou Reverend Fox will have none of that and is leading his congregation in a rousing anthem of “Blind Faith” where he declares in stern, strong voice, “My salvation depends on getting them to bend to God’s will.”  Against this pressure to conform to strict Puritanism, a blind boy with an astoundingly quick mind named Nicholas -- whose father is strictly non-believing -- desperately wants to do more than sitting all day carding wool and instead wants to go to the church school.  Even though the unbending Reverend does all he can to block his way, Nicholas rings forth in hopeful voice, “What if there is no horizon?  What if there lies for me some higher dignity?”

The story of Nicholas Saunderson is a long forgotten one of a blind boy in Yorkshire who dared to challenge others to see that not having sight does not mean not having great intelligence and the ability to be a major player in the mathematical and scientific worlds of the late seventeenth century.  Andy Platt has taken this little-known bit of history and turned it into a world premiere musical, No Horizon, launching it at the 2016 Fringe Festival and aspiring to ensure all of Great Britain soon comes to know and honor this daring boy as a national hero. 

As Nicholas, Samuel Reid is totally convincing as a young man who has no sight, always looking in blank stares just past whoever is talking to him while also having a face that communicates volumes in overall expression.  Convincing also is his clear voice that sings with an energy, determination, and optimism that is totally contagious as he does when he urges his friends to “Read Me Books” and “just fill me up.”  As one of those friends, Nathaniel Laydon is Joshua Dunn (in understudy performance for the regular George Griffiths); and Mr. Laydon is wonderful as the loyal, fearless pal who brings Nicholas to Cambridge, ostensibly as his tutor but secretly to get him in front of professors like the honored Sir Isaac Newton (Ken Taylor).  There Joshua leads fellow students in a rousing, full-voiced, and fun-filled “Magical, Mathematical Man” in honor of his friend, Nicholas. 

But his other advocate at home is more than just a friend.  Abigail, the daughter of the scornful Reverend Fox, sees not only a great mind in the making but also a boy that is clearly winning her heart, going against everything her father has in mind for her.  With a voice light and fresh as that of a lark, Clare Wakley (in this performance as an understudy for Samantha Griffiths) sings in beautiful duet with Nicholas, “What is this feeling? ... Something so right cannot be wrong.”

While not all the voices in solo are quite as sure and solid as these three leads, together as an ensemble the blend is strong, harmonious, and uplifting.  Particularly well-sung and choreographed are the academically robed students of Cambridge as they sing the funny “Must Be Thick” as they convince Nicholas to tutor all of them.  Later, they join Nicolas in a revival-sounding “Lesson One” where they learn from Nicholas, “Learning’s where you show your passion.”

The story, already naturally laden with much emotion, does go somewhat overboard in too much melodrama in a few spots.  (One death scene has tears and sobs that go on seemingly forever.)  The musical’s songs themselves, while singularly uplifting and noble, after a while often begin to sound similar.  But this is a world premiere; and the seed germinated can still be sowed, trimmed, and shaped into a truly worthy finale product.

With a story intriguing and inspiring, a large cast of enthusiastic actors young and old, and a director (Louise Denison) who clearly knows how to tell a good tale, No Horizon (with a few adjustments) should have no soon sunset but rise to see many future performances on other stages – both in Great Britain and beyond.  

Rating: 4 E

2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #27
The Glass Menagerie
Tennessee Williams
American Repertory Theater as Part of the EdinburghInternational Festival
King Theatre

“You are the only young man that I know of who ignores the fact that the future becomes the present, the present the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don't plan for it!”

So warns a mother to her son in one of the most famous lines of Tennessee William’s early, some-say autobiographical play, The Glass Menagerie.  But this mother of course ignores the fact that she cannot let go of her own colonial southern past, has ensured her daughter is helpless and has no future except at home with her, and is about to drive away her son who is restless and determined his will not be a future stuck in the past with them.  American Repertory Theater reprises its much-lauded 2015 Broadway production of this American classic for the 2016 Edinburgh International Festival with daringly imaginative direction, an arrestingly stellar cast, and stunningly beautiful set and lighting.

Currently one of the hottest, most-sought-after directors on the globe (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Black Watch, Once), John Tiffany has painted Williams’ memory play on a canvas that blurs and blends, reflects and mirrors, shines and shadows the remembrances, hopes, and regrets of this three-person family.  The words of Williams’ script are often given pause in pronouncement as actors choreograph in slow-motion silence memories like that of setting a family table or of looking in hope and wonder at a rising moon – all in movements designed by Steven Hoggett.  With the lighting mastery of Natasha Katz, the stage’s flat-floor canvas is dotted with sparkling stars that twinkle among the dream-like reflections of the family members and their home  -- all on the dark, glass-light stage surrounding the two hexagon raised platform rooms of Bob Crowley’s stage.  A precariously flimsy and ever-diminishing fire escape climbs somewhere high into the heavens, symbolizing so starkly how near impossible it is for mother, daughter, or even wanderlust son to leave this too-close abode.  Apart from the powerful performances of this dream cast, the meanings and messages of Tennessee Williams’ play of memories are fully laid before us by this incredible production team.  (One note: The one flaw in this flawless design is that those sitting in the orchestra/stall section miss much of the reflective beauty and thus messages that those higher up see on the mirrored stage floor.)

As five-time Tony nominee and two-time Best Actress winner, Cherry Jones certainly has the all acting prowess and credentials for an iconic part like Amanda, the domineering mother who repeatedly purports only to care for the welfare of her two children but who clearly is always at the center of her own universe.  But Ms. Jones -- having grown up in the small town of Paris, Tennessee -- also has a natural affinity for the drawl and the disposition of this aging woman who remembers as if yesterday when she herself was the gowned and gorgeous southern belle being courted by all her “seventeen gentleman callers.”  In a voice and manner that elongates words to their fullest, often sweeping singular ones through hills and valleys of sound, Amanda continually creates a world that exists in her dreams only – a world where gentleman callers regularly come to call on her limping, severely shy daughter and a world where her restless son leaves behind his penchant for movie houses and drinking and instead insures her and his sister’s futures are secure.  With theatrical sweeps of her long arms and dramatic moves of her tall, slender body, this Amanda commands full attention both by her own design as the main star of her life and by the skills of the performer herself.

Ms. Jones is supported by cast members who all bring note-worthy performances.  As Tom, Michael Esper is the story’s reflective, poetic narrator on the fire escape’s landing who becomes an over-grown boy once inside the family flat, often plopping on floor or couch in a crumpled heap as if a teenager rather than a young man long past adolescence.  His sometime fury at his mother (“You ugly, babbling old witch”) is jarring and visceral while his deeply felt combination of love, sympathy, and pity for his sister, Laura, is evidently genuine. 

As Laura, Kate O’Flynn is as delicate looking and vulnerable to breakage as the tiny glass animals she so dotes on.  Her stares into space are often fixated on something no one else sees.  The fear she has of moving anywhere beyond the confines of these few rooms is seen in her paralytic-looking hands with fingers frozen in fear of taking any action beyond tending her menagerie or putting on yet another old record on the Victor Victrola. 

But when a gentleman caller does appear for dinner (at the invitation of Tom to a high school friend and co-worker from his warehouse job), Laura has a few precious minutes when she is able to share who she really is with an understanding guy who once called her by the nickname “Blue Roses” (because she one had pleurisies while in school) and whom she secretly has loved ever since.  Seth Numrich is Mr. O’Connor, the jovial, truly good-guy-next-door type who is eagerly chats with Laura, is willing to listen to her without judgment of her limp or her shyness, and is a way for her to live for a few minutes a lifetime of dreams and hopes, capped by maybe one of the sweetest kisses ever staged.  That those few seconds of Laura’s bliss are soon quickly shattered by the revelation of a harsh reality is of course the only possible outcome, but the embarrassment and hurt of Laura and the genuine regret by Mr. O’Connor of unknowingly leading her own are both gripping to behold.

The names of Tennessee Williams, John Tiffany, and/or Cherry Jones may have drawn most of the standing-room only audience to the grand King Theatre of Edinburgh for this moving and magical The Glass Menagerie; but once there, how clear it becomes that everyone involved on and off stage of this production is a star extraordinaire.

Rating: 5 E


  1. Hi Guys,

    Thanks for coming to the show, Poena 5x1 feedback is much appreciated but just wondering if you could correct the piece as although Abbie Spallen wrote the show, I was the actor in it (Cathy Conneff).

    Many thanks xxx

  2. Thanks a million guys, much appreciated! Totally quoting this!