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Festival Review: Roundabout at Summerhall

Michael Cox reviews I Got Superpowers for my Birthday, Every Brilliant Thing, All the Things I've Lied About, Scorch, Jonny & the Baptists--Eat the Poor and Ghost Quartet.

I Got Superpowers for my Birthday ***

On the night of their thirteenth birthdays, three teenagers awake to the sound of goblins in their respective bedrooms. Instead of cowering, they each are able to vanquish their foe with a power they didn’t know they had: one with fire, another with water and the third through making the earth move. But when all three face down a gremlin in detention, they discover that they are fated for a larger battle than they imagined.

Paines Plough and Half Moon’s production is good fun. Katie Douglas’ script takes all the usual superhero tropes and has fun meshing it with a coming-of-age tale. It might all be a little predictable, but it has its heart in the right place. It is also very well performed, with the company of three not only playing their parts well but having fun playing their parents and the monsters they must defeat. Most importantly, they are very good at playing to the kids in the audience, always making sure to give non-threatening eye contact and the occasional high-five.

And yet, clocking in at only 45 minutes, it still feels a little long. This is a production that relies on text and actor physicality—no puppets or outlandish special effects here (save lighting changes). That is a good thing, but kids and parents hoping for a little more ‘razzle dazzle’ might feel a little short-changed.

Every Brilliant Thing ****

There is a reason this hour-long show keeps coming back: it is truly brilliant.

When he was six, a boy’s mother attempted suicide. As a way of cheering her up, he began to compile a list of things he loves. This list took a life of its own, becoming a life-project that would grow and see him through many moments in his life—the good and the bad.

This could have been a schmaltzy, sentimental mess. It is, instead, a life-affirming piece that is hilarious and devastating. It also uses audience participation to excellent (and non-threatening) effect, as people become important figures from his life and, more importantly, are given items from the list to read.

And actor Jonny Donahoe is wonderful in his performance—brutally honest, yet bittersweet, warm and hilarious. May the list continue to find life long after this current run.

All the Things I’ve Lied About ****

Katie Bonna wants to do a TED talk. She is planning on practicing her proposed speech before the audience and has chosen a topic she feels passionate about: lying. It goes well—until truth starts seeping into the planned presentation.

Bonna is a very good performer: entertaining, easy to like and fun to spend time with. But buried in all of that is a more vulnerable core, a core that becomes more apparent as the talk goes on.

Maybe a lot of it has been done before, and perhaps the audience participation bits are a little too gimmicky. However, Bonna sells the production well. How much of it is actual truth? Who knows? But even a tall tale has an emotional truth to it, and it is the emotionally raw moments here that ring the most honest.

Scorch *****

Kessy is unhappy with the female body she has. She relates far more with masculinity and aspects of supposed male culture. Kessy dresses in male clothes and thrives online, preferring male avatars and communicating without the need of face-to-face communication. But Kessy is about to fall hard for Jules, and this will end up changing everything forever.

Scorch is a tremendous theatrical experience. The writing in Stacey Gregg’s script is razor-sharp: authentic, almost poetic in its simplicity with astute observations. And the production, directed by Emma Jordan, is pared down, allowing Kessy to openly commune with the audience about the trials and tribulations of life.

But it’s all down to its single performance, and it is here where Scorch is nothing short of a triumph: Amy McAllister is utterly phenomenal as Kessy. Her physicality, the way she fully embraces Kessy in mind, body and spirit, the way she almost confesses each event in Kessy’s life, is a masterclass in fully embodying a character.

Scorch might not be easy viewing, but it is essential. It’s not just theatre at its most potent but offers up what just might be one of the strongest performances currently happening in Edinburgh. Simply not to be missed.

Jonny & the Baptists: Eat the Poor ****

Jonny and Paddy are angry: the country has gotten worse and inequality is rife. Armed with wit and a pair of guitars, they sing about class and the lives the oblivious privileged have.

Sure, most of the targets are a bit easy, but Jonny and Paddy are terrific performers full of contagious energy and optimism in a better future. And the story, a look at what might happen in a possible future if Jonny signs a devil’s pact with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Paddy keeps to his principals, is paper-thin, but really we just need an excuse to stitch the songs together—so no real let down there. The songs are also a lot of fun to listen to: overtly political with a righteous tone, but always with a sprinkling of humour.

Of course, it is easy to see that those on the conservative side would not be amused. So, in fairness, detract stars the more right-wing your politics lay.

Ghost Quartet ***

Told in four ‘sides’, Ghost Quartet tells a collection of interconnected stories that are thematically tied together musically. Four performers play music and create multiple roles, relaying dark tales of the supernatural.

And it’s all impressively done. The music sounds great—clever lyrics and wonderful tunes. It’s also well-staged: simply executed. However, what aren’t so clear are the stories themselves. Who certain characters are, and how they tie in with narratives and characters, isn’t always easy to follow.

Still, musically it is an impressive production: great performances all around with a solid collection of songs.

All productions perform in the Roundabout space at Summerhall. Check website or programme for further detail.

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