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Michael Across the Festival - Aug 20, 2011

Michael Cox reviews Somewhere Beneath it All, A Small Fire Burns Still, Lights, Camera, Walkies, Translunar Paradise, Holly Copter and The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan.

Not the most exciting day attending Edinburgh’s festivals, but perhaps my most eclectic.

Starting with a bang is Somewhere Beneath it All, a Small Fire Burns Still (*****), a master class in everything right with fringe-style monologues. Performed by Fringe favourite Phil Nichol, the production is a powerhouse of acting, writing and directing. Nichol’s character is in a restaurant, desperate to get the attention of a waitress he’s fancied for quite some time. Part confessional, part inner-turmoil monologue, the script is chalk-full of clever insights and hilariously filthy lines.

And in a mutiny of theatrics, halfway through the performance, right when you think you have a handle on where everything is going, the rug is viciously pulled from under, and suddenly the play twists itself into a labyrinth of ideas, brilliantly questioning every moment that previously occurred and the very essence of what theatre is. How much of it is real? I could easily believe all of it and none of it. What it is, in the end, is a tour de force and a brilliant reminder or how excellent of a performer Nichol is. Do not miss this.

There are so many reasons why Lights, Camera, Walkies (***) could have gone wrong. A Hollywood satire done by young British talents who have never worked there, the play is about two dog trainers who are trying to keep their canines in a blockbuster. The producers have them competing with each other, you see, with both dogs shooting the same scenes, but only one dog will appear in the finished film. Cue backstabbing, behind-the-scene bitchiness and every joke you can imagine involving celebrity culture and dogs.

And yet, oddly enough, it actually works. Unlike most film satires, which are inaccessible to anyone who’s not in or an expert on the industry, the play has fun sending up every film stereotype out there. The company of three each play a number of characters (some working better than others), and there’s always a wink-nudge atmosphere to the whole thing. Tom Glover’s script isn’t quite as sharp as it could be, but between spirited performances and witty banter the production does make the audience laugh.

Perhaps the most bittersweet production currently running on the Fringe is Translunar Paradise (****). A company of three (two actors and an accordion player) tell the story of an old man who has recently lost his wife to cancer. Told completely through movement and song, the play bounces through time, going back and forth between the old man’s memories and his current lonely life.

It’s a highly-stylised production that manages to be heartbreakingly beautiful. The two actors use a staccato-style movement that makes it look like you’re watching a collection of images pass by, and they use convincing masks to bounce back and forth between youth and old age, all this while the accordion player looks on, manipulating props and providing a soundtrack. It’s all brilliantly done and easily evokes an emotional tapestry. Most of the audience, myself included, had tears in their eyes at the end.

Holly Welsh is a performer I hadn’t heard of until very recently, but she is certainly someone I will be following. Her first Edinburgh Fringe stand-up, Holly Copter (****), is a gentle hour-long act that is consistently clever. Welsh comes across as personable and intelligent, and she relies more on insights and experience than on easy laughs. She’s still finding her feet, but the vast majority of her act works well. Though she had a full house, she’s currently performing in a small space, but I fully expect to see her perform to a much larger venue next time.

One of the great things about the Edinburgh International Festival is that it brings acts I’d usually not consider to my attention. Case in point: the Peking opera The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan (***). Clocking in at two hours, it is the shortest version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet I’ve ever seen onstage, but it is nonetheless an experience I’m glad I had. Beautiful to look at with lush colourful costumes and some playful choreography, the production gives the basics of the classic play.

Which might be its big flaw: it’s just too short. Opera can allow characters to expand, permitting them to express their inner-thoughts through numerous means, and if there is a play out there with characters haunted by inner thoughts, it certainly is Hamlet. But as the libretto seems more intent on brevity, it falls to the direction to pick up the pace and infuse creativity, and it is here that the opera works best: well-choreographed group scenes, a decently exciting sword fight and the evening’s best joke of having the Polonius character played as a dwarf. It’s an interesting production that works but doesn’t soar to the heights the source material is more than capable of.

Somewhere Beneath It All, A Small Fire Burns Still performs at 1200 and Lights, Camera, Walkies performs at 1400, both at Gilded Balloon. Translunar Paradise plays at the Pleasance Dome at 1540. Holly Copter plays at the Pleasance Courtyard at 1800. The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan has completed its run.

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