Another flying visit, another bunch of shows demolished. My findings:
The first show I saw was also probably my favourite, Mr Swallow – Houdini at the Pleasance Courtyard. Two years ago I loved Mr Swallow’s Dracula! so much that I went three times, twice in Edinburgh and once in London, but his Houdini tribute ups the ante. Not merely songs and hilarity and clowning and magic (and breathtaking magic at that; nice to see the return of the satsuma/sashu) but a genuine sense of danger and a mix of exhilaration and bewilderment at the climax. For logistical reasons I can’t see it going on tour, but a London run must surely follow that anyone down south would be foolish to miss. I marvelled at the all-round song-and-dance-and-physical-stuff excellence of Nick Mohammed and his stooges David Elms and Kieran Hodgson. The Guardian review is spot on.
Another highlight, entirely predictably, was Kieran Hodgson’s solo show Maestro, Hodgson hotfooting it across town to the Voodoo Rooms every night. On further acquaintance it might even turn out be an improvement on last year’s unimprovable-upon Lance. It’s about Hodgson’s love of Mahler, his attempts to write a symphony, his unsuccessful love affairs. So much for me personally (as a freak of a child who not only listened to Classic FM aged ten but even appeared on it) to relate to. At some point midway through the show it became apparent to me that I was Kieran Hodgson’s ideal man; by the end I was devastated. It’s got a great deal of heart and an uncanny Christoph Waltz impersonation.
The established stand-ups didn’t let me down. Lucy Porter’s Consequences was cosy (this is a compliment) but incisive. I think her great virtue, as with Mae Martin (see below), is her innate likeability. When she’s not making you laugh, she’s making you smile. Paul Foot’s ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Piglet was a different beast. I’d never seen him live before. His manic aggression and posturing are a delight to watch if you’re not in the front row. The people on the receiving end of his scattergun attacks might have felt differently. I laughed most at the teacher’s absurd address to children informing them of the dismissal of a member of staff: ‘We always suspected Mr Trundle was gay, but what really took the biscuit was when he stole the minibus.’
Mae Martin’s Work in Progress show is as enjoyable as last year’s Us. She starts with 15 minutes or so of material before answering questions submitted by the audience at the start and improvising a song. You just love her. Not stand-up exactly, but I also saw a great show by Dr Phil Hammond, Life and Death (But Mainly Death), a funny and moving story of his family history, ending with a stirring entreaty to love one another and embrace life. Hard not to leave without a smile on your face.
Of the up-and-comers, I enjoyed Naomi Petersen’s I am Telling You I’m Not Going. Ostensibly about her agoraphobia, it’s really a trawl through childhood memories and traumas. Favourite bit: ‘Jennifer’s teasing was water off a duck’s back – if the water was tears that I’d cried on to a duck.’ The Pizza Express aficionado will find a lot to identify with. Sam & Tom’s Peter Fleming and Wilbur Bilb: Over the Airwaves I loved very much, family loyalty or no family loyalty. Fleming’s twisted take on 1960s children’s TV had me helpless at times. The furore surrounding the ‘mechanical synagogue’ was one of many golden moments. I’ve never been less ashamed to be his brother. And the joke I contributed got a laugh, so I was happy. Sam’s semi-improvised anarchy provided an excellent contrast to Tom’s discipline and tightness. I was proud to be shot in the head by him.
If I had to name a favourite Sondheim musical I’d probably be torn between Merrily We Roll Along and Company. This festival I saw productions of both, each excellent in its way. Eltham College’s Merrily We Roll Along was slick right from the off, the overture underscoring a montage of images and newspaper headlines moving forward in time up to the starting point of the musical, which occurs in reverse chronology. Condensed into a single act of under two hours, I didn’t miss the couple of songs that were jettisoned, but I did regret the absence of the reprise of ‘Not a Day Goes By’, which should be a gutting moment. Most reviews and online comments have (rightly) drawn attention to Ruari Paterson-Achenbach’s Charley, but the central quintet were all remarkable, and I was blown away by Sophie Holmes as Gussie, who wouldn’t have been out of place in a professional production. The band was impeccable. The Lincoln Company’s Company was on a smaller scale, a ninety-minute abbreviation with an unmiked cast of ten, an electric piano and a few black boxes in the cavernous Saint Stephen’s Stockbridge. When (female) Bobbi asked ‘Are you ever sorry you got married?’ and the play moved straight on, my heart sank. How can you have a production of Company without ‘Sorry-Grateful’? But it worked, multiple gender switches and all, because it’s such a malleable show and because the talented performers were so committed to it. The nature of the building’s acoustic meant their diction had to be excellent, and it was. Alice Saxton’s ‘Getting Married Today’ justifies the price of admission alone. It runs for the rest of the month and deserves an audience: do go, and sit near the front.
Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, on the other hand, is a play that defies truncation, given the mathematical precision of its perfection. Could the Pembroke Players’ 90-minute abridged version possibly satisfy? Not wholly – I missed Septimus consoling Thomasina over the loss of so much Ancient Greek drama – but there were a number of things to love. Not the performance space, perhaps, which was sweltering and had the players competing against ceiling fans to be heard; but the performances, especially those of Daisy Jones, the embodiment of Thomasina, sweet with a hint of archness, Colin Rothwell as Bernard, and Xanthe Burdett as Hannah (doubling well as Noakes). If Os Leanse’s turned-up-to-11 Chater felt a bit overdone (he was excellent as Valentine in the modern scenes), it was at any rate audible, a virtue not shared by everyone on stage. I also missed Gus; but with limited resources and playing time this must count as a success. I saw the first performance; I suspect its fluency will grow.
Last but not least, a play by the children of the Dolphin School Theatre Company, Tales from the Tent by Judy Seall, the final performance of which I caught on Saturday morning. It’s a piece that grew out of the school’s involvement with the Refugee Relief charity. Two Russians (played touchingly by bilingual brother and sister Andrei and Ulyana Roberts) pass through a refugee camp, whose other residents pass the time by retelling familiar stories. One girl is the Librarian, who looks after all the books. She has one member of staff: ‘I’m the Assistant Librarian, and I … help.’ One boy plays the violin throughout. The highlight for me was the story of the Hare and the Tortoise, the boy playing the Tortoise (Jamie Thorogood, I think) quite remarkable in his comic instinct. I don’t think you can coach such things: this was an innate funniness, as (for instance) in his deadpan lament when the Hare upsets tea all over his tank top. Some great physical theatre (lights waving in the air), and at its heart a message of tolerance. Very hard not to be inspired by the talent for acting and music and dance on display. Looking at the pictures here brings back how magical it was.
I also had my first deep-fried Mars bar.