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Across the Festival: Reviews

Michael Cox reviews a collection of Fringe shows.

106. That’s my count this year. That’s 106 theatre productions, dance pieces, art installations, talks, stand-up acts…the whole shebang. With that count, there have been several shows that have fallen through the cracks, shows that may not have blown me away but are certainly worth a look for those who think they sound good.

I hate star ratings, but they are a necessary evil during the Festival. The following would all be in the category of three-star shows, even though the reasons for each are different.

Take Drum Struck, a rather fun musical piece that uses music and dance to tell the story of an African tribe. There is nothing revolutionary or remarkable about the show, but it is good fun and has some great performances, especially from the two leads, both of whom are charismatic and full of great, infectious energy. One of the main pulls to the show is that everyone gets a small drum they can beat. I learned two things: a) I have no rhythm (actually not much of a revelation but one that was reinforced) and b) hitting the drum for an hour can make your fingers numb. But it was good fun and has an innocent charm that carries it beyond any weakness.

Confession. One production I was looking forward to was The Road to Qatar for one simple reason: I used to live there. I’d spent 14 months in the capital of Doha teaching English, so it’s a country I know well and have a soft spot for. Based on a true story about two New York Jews commissioned by the ruling family to compose a musical to be performed at a huge gala, the piece offers an excellent opportunity for a culture clash tale. The idea is great and the cast of five are certainly game, but the piece feels a bit ho-hum: the music isn’t very memorable and none of the scenarios or characters are given more than surface material. Shows have to be trimmed to fit into a Fringe timeslot, and it is certainly possible that the musical has much more meat to it that has been sacrificed for time. If that’s the case it’s a real shame because there is great potential here. However, what’s on offer is something that is pleasant, not too challenging and manages to raise a few chuckles. Good enough for an hour’s distraction, but nothing more.

I really wanted to like Julien Cottereau: Imagine Toi more than I did. I’m a sucker for Cirque du Soleil and clowing (when done well), and there is no denying Cottereau’s skills and talent. He comes across like a gun-slinging Peter Pan, a cheeky twinkle in the eye that hides a benevolent mischievous nature, and there are many delightful moments to be found. And that would be great for a show clocking in at, or just under, an hour. But at 75-minutes the production has too many moments that are repetitive and features scenes that need to be cut in half. Still, Cottereau is a terrific performer filled with glee, and it’s hard not having a childish grin on your face for most of the performance.

I suppose one’s thoughts on The Bitches Box hinges on one’s feelings towards dogs. The New Zealand production has two actresses (Emma Newborn and Amelia Guild—both terrifically game) play an assortment of dogs, from two pooches in heat to a house dog grown comfortable with his surroundings. I’ve always been a dog person so got a kick out of watching the actors running rampant and playing aspects I recognise. But the material is pretty thin, so those who aren’t charmed by canines will probably find much to dislike. But then again, if you aren’t a dog person why would you bother buying a ticket for ‘a play about dogs’ to begin with?

Four Screws Loose in Screwtopia! is a bit hit and miss. Overall as a show it works, more down to the fact the four performers have a great rapport. For every skit that works there’s another that doesn’t, but there are enough zany moments to appease absurd comedy fans. It also contains two of the funniest things I’ve seen this year: the opening Les Miz medley about UK shops and the James Bond story told through song clips. Had the entire show been of the calibre found in those two moments, the show would have easily been one of this year’s highlights rather than an hour’s entertainment.

As a Muppet fan, I had such high hopes for Henson Alternative’s Puppet Up!—Uncensored. I suppose, like most improv shows, the evening hinges on the suggestions given by the audience and how the performers react, and the evening I saw had pretty uninspired choices and suggestions. The performers almost always went for the easy smutty options and every scene was cut short right when something interesting started to cook on stage. Still, the test of any comedy is whether you laugh or not, and I have to admit that the laughs did come quick and frequently, though slight giggles and amusement were more common than belly laughs. Also, the best moments were the most innocent: re-enacting two old Muppet clips. Had there been more of that and less of the smut, the show would have been something special rather than the simple puppets gone bad act: funny, but almost completely forgettable come the following morning.

Overall I rather liked The Epicene Butcher and Other Stories for Consenting Adults. A number of tales are told using the Japanese artform of Kamishibai, or a slideshow based on telling a story though animated images. There are more than half a dozen told throughout the performance, some better than others, but the two women involved are both great fun to watch. And the tale Mario's Lament is one of my favourite things I've seen at this year's Fringe, though I suppose it only works for those of us old enough to remember the old Nintendo game Super Mario Brothers. Do sit as close to the middle as you can, and Chalk Girl will give sweets to those brave enough to sit in front--an extra incentive.

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