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Across the Festival: August 7--Zoo & Pleasance

Michael Cox reviews Matt Forde--24 Hour Political Party People, Sophie Willan--Novice Detective, Broke, Light and Morgan & West--Parlour Tricks.

One of the great things about hitting the Fringe is that you can get a taste for so much, creating a day of great variety.

I’d seen Matt Forde on different TV programmes and always found him clever and interesting. His latest Fringe show, Matt Forde: 24 Hour Political Party People (***), offers an hour of political insight. He’s smart and well-informed, and he’s also quite good at catching the speech patterns of the political big-guns in London—even if his voice isn’t a perfect mockery, there’s no question who he’s playing throughout. He has a very relaxed demeanour, even if what he says is razor-sharp, and when he goes after London-based politicians he’s almost relentless. Only his section on the Scottish referendum doesn’t work, with his observations on the shallow, obvious (and London-based) side. That said, Forde’s hour-long set is very funny, particularly for political animals that enjoy a good banter at the expense of those who supposedly represent the people.

I genuinely like Sophie Willan. She’s someone I hadn’t encountered before, but she came highly recommended—and I can see why. She has a light, playful touch; a performer who’s far smarter than she first appears and has an honest air about her comedy. Which is why I found Sophie Willan: Novice Detective (***) a bit of a frustrating experience. The set-up is intriguing: as a teenager she and her odd grandmother embarked on a journey to uncover the identity of her father. This is mixed with the metaphor of being a detective, based on her love of TV sleuths. She enlists the help of the audience to sift through clues and come up with answers.

Which is all fine, for the most part. Willan is very personable, non-threatening with the people she calls upon in the audience while having a natural knack for telling a good story. However, those two threads conflict with each other sometimes, and at times the audience shenanigans seem to be there more as a shield than as inspired necessity. Novice Detective is an enjoyable enough show; it’s constantly fun, even if it doesn’t quite show Willan at her best. However, I have become a fan and hope for a richer show from her in the future.

Another production with an honest air about it is Broke (****). Theatre company The Paper Birds interviewed a number of people about financial difficulties. A company of three present snippets of these interviews, along with facts and figures, in a multimedia production that also includes testimonials from the actors involved. It’s a smart production that knows just how far to take the satire before returning to the realistic. It’s mostly quite funny, sometimes harshly ironic, but it also manages to whip up enough pathos to create a rather terrific, thought-provoking finale that moved me to tears. Perhaps a bit earnest for its own good at times, Broke is still good political theatre, angry enough to be heard but funny enough to encourage its audience to listen.

Light (****) is technically impressive stuff. Set in a future where everyone is mentally connected and thoughts can be sent telepathically, the play takes place in a world akin to those found in Metropolis, Blade Runner and Brazil, where a small band of freedom-fighters try to topple an oppressive regime. The crux of the production is its use of light: in pitch darkness, the company illuminate themselves with small lamps. Movement is suggested through mime and rotating lights, and thoughts are represented by small green and red bulbs. This is all scored by music and live beatboxing that accompany every dramatic moment.

There are some dramaturgical issues. The characters are quite thin, some bits could certainly be tightened up and yet the end seems rushed and unsatisfactory (even if what happens is all but inevitable). But the technical execution and precision of the company in creating the staging is extremely theatrical and constantly astounds.

Also with the ability to astound, but for completely different, quieter reasons, are magicians Morgan & West. Going for light, cheeky humour rather than extravagant theatricality, the duo’s playful act as ‘time-travelling Victorians’ is good fun mixed with well-executed tricks. As comedians they are consistently funny and have a great back-and-forth with each other; as magicians they are terrific—they even managed to ‘fool’ Penn and Teller on their ITV show a few years back. Their latest show, Morgan & West: Parlour Tricks (****), might be similar to previous productions, but with constant good humour and tricks that (mostly) equally impress and delight, the show is a constant crowd-pleaser.

Matt Forde: 24 Hour Political Party People performs at the Pleasance Courtyard at 1430 until August 24. Sophie Willan: Novice Detective is at Zoo at 1215 until August 25. Broke performs at 1610 (not 12), Light performs at 1715 (not 11, 18) and Morgan & West: Parlour Tricks performs at 1900 at the Pleasance Dome until August 25.

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