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Topping off a wonderful week in Scotland, I’m delighted to have been awarded the Allen Wright Award for Reviews by The Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society.

Allen Wright was the first Arts Editor of The Scotsman, and the paper’s Chief Theatre Critic. The award began 19 years ago and is designed for the best arts writing by writers under 30. The award for best features went to Arusa Qureshi.

I’m over the moon to have been chosen as the winner of the reviews category, and I’m thrilled to be part of a gang of writers contributing to the discussion of some of the best, worst, strangest, most uplifting and devastating theatre around.

My submitted reviews for the award:

Anyone’s Guess How We Got Here – Exeunt

The Believers Are But Brothers – Exeunt

BlackCatfishMusketeer – Fest

Announcement: EdFringe

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alipoor

Blue lights illuminate the theatre like popping candy. WhatsApp. It’s a death threat. I click the screen off and it flashes again. A rape threat. Click. Something about a K-bar. Click. They’re flashing up too fast to read them all. I click the screen blank again. It lights up. I turn it over.

The Believers Are But Brothers is an exploration of the power of the internet; of loneliness and of radical jihadis; of men and their machines.

Part of the show takes place on WhatsApp. The threats are posted in the instant-messaging group made for each performance, with all the audience members added in the queue before the show. Creator Javaad Alipoor shares memes and articles in the group to help illustrate his words on stage. It quickly turns darker, as between audience members offering examples of the most disturbing things they’ve watched online, anonymous trolls begin to slip in hostile warnings. The threats are fictionalised but it’s not hard to find similar threats on any 4chan forum or Reddit chain.

This digital illustration – this sped-up insult mosh pit- is a demonstration of how the the secure end-to-end encryption network is used away from the public eye. But it’s also more than that. A few hours after the show, my phone will flash again. It will announce the terrorist attack in Barcelona. That night Islamic State will claim responsibility. The next morning the death toll will rise. Alipoor’s digital tap on the shoulder in The Believers serves as a reminder that while some of these words and stories are fictionalised, this situation is all too real.

Alipoor has spent months delving into the dark depths of the internet, bantering with IS recruiters, engaging with 4chan trolls and trying to understand the network and actions behind digitally-tentacled terrorists.

However brutal its content, this show is delicate in its approach and is never gratuitous with its violence. Alipoor fuzzes and hides the most grotesque imagery, leaving gaps for our imagination to fill. A river of blood washes the screens. Alipoor describes a generation of men in crisis. His language is both intellectual and poetic, painting pictures of incredible savagery with a brush thickly coated in detailed research. He focuses on three men: Marwan, Atif and Ethan. From very different starting points, he explains how each draws closer to radical Islam.

The play demonstrates how the internet can be used for that space between irony and evil. How rape videos can be shared for the lols. How memes were made mesiah. How recruiters reach out to their warriors. Above all it reveals a deep-seated loneliness in the men who engage in all this. In Graeme Wood’s prolific book The Ways of the Strangers, he finds something similar. He interviews supporters of Islamic State and reveals how, when taken away from their movie-like propaganda videos and passed a cup of tea, they are just lonely men looking for purpose. The Believers adds to this by demonstrating how forums empower them, and how their belief becomes their comfort blanket. These men grab onto an injustice they see being fought against. They get a glimpse of the community behind it. They want in.

Alipoor’s language leaps between intellectual and poetic. It is beautiful storytelling but the speed at which this show travels- with multiple strands traversing the stage together- means that each character’s narrative needs a little more clarity.  It almost overloads with information. The impact of its individual stories would be greater were it to slow its pace a little, and clarify its edges.

But it does serve to provide an example of the strength and scope of Islamic State via the internet. It demonstrates the power loneliness and isolation hold in the creation of a monster. When a man in the internet age is disregarded and angry at injustice, it is not hard to see the allure of a group who offers him power and purpose.

Throughout the show, Alipoor is not alone onstage. A man (Luke Emery) sits quietly behind the screens, illuminated but ignored. Though Alipoor is honest with us from the start about himself, Emery is never introduced. He sits facing us, hiding the content of his screens. We assume he is controlling the WhatsApp group, YouTube videos and projections that illustrate the men’s stories, but as the show progresses, we begin to suspect that we are not his audience. As the brutality builds and the tentacles spread, we get the impression that Emery is communicating with a different set of blue lights. A different pack of popping candy spread across the globe. The fictionalised men from Alipoor’s stories have stepped out of the screen and now hide in plain view, centre stage and purposeful, waiting for their moment.

Original: Exeunt

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If stories are not continued to be told, the lives they contain can be wiped away like chalk on a blackboard. In the basement of Edinburgh’s Army Reserve Centre, Will Huggins preserves the story of his great uncle Edgar, a veteran of the First World War. This is a story of boys thrown into battle, of horses and of dreams never quite realised.

Dotted with recordings of Edgar’s voice, collected by the Imperial War Museum, there are delicate moments of humour and love. As it becomes clear that Edgar was resistant to talking about the darker details of his time during the war, perhaps the greatest reveal is the guilt of being alive some soldiers feel, that surviving somehow makes you less of a hero.

Huggins acknowledges that as a child he unconsciously glorified his great uncle’s trauma, looking at a war wound with “horrified wonder”. Here, he approaches the topic with care, but the pain is never blistering and he moves too fast to let it settle.

Huggins illustrates his words with chalk, noting dates, names and ill-prepared attack strategies like an old fashioned lecture. The pedagogical style seeps into the content. It is a tragic story but told by numbers. This personal history lesson is an important record, but could be just as impactful, and perhaps more so, were it made for radio.

At the end of the play Huggins wipes the blackboard clean. He leaves two numbers: year of birth and death. In the end, this is how most of us are remembered. While this may not be the most accomplished play, it is lovely that Edgar’s story can now also be remembered by strangers through his great nephew’s performance.

Original: Fest

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Yaël Farber’s thrumming production returns to the Fringe after it first stalked the stage in 2012. Creating a vivid, bloody drama of race and class, August Strindberg’s Miss Julie is transposed to post-apartheid South Africa. The intensity holds throughout as Julie (played with feral desire by Hilda Cronje) tempts her manservant John (with an avalanche of a performance by Bongile Mantsai) in this production which roars for its full 90 minutes.

The love between the impossible duo is so ferocious the stage seems to beat. Their destructive passions never settle, power constantly throwing them across the stage. A gun is pointed one way then the other. Lungs crack and blood seeps.

Though Julie and John’s bodies fit together, they are unable to find any sense of harmony. There is a temporary moment of calm where tensions reduce to a simmer, limbs bubbling to touch, before cascading once again into a thumping, savage haze. Over the haunting, metallic tune of the onstage band, they replay the tensions between their ancestors as they rip wildly at each other’s cores. The vast theatre is not ideal for the intensity of the production, but it pulsates regardless.

While bundled in the illicit couple’s searing lust, the production also shows how John’s mother is traumatised by her past, agony tangible in her song. The tragedy of the ignorance of youth is revealed in the last few moments of the play, as the dust settles, and John’s mother is left to clear up the devastating mess.

Original: Fest. Photo: Murdo Macleod.

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orwin

We watch as a movie is made. Orwin plays Her, a seductress whose every action is for Him, played by a different member of the audience each night. Dressed as a cowboy, he is the star of the show. He reads from an autocue in a Texan drawl, following his stage directions. Our audience member is perfect, macho, tattooed, standing tall. The gun looks natural in his hands.

Her grip on the gun is sexual rather than controlling. She holds it not to shoot, but to pass to him, or to caress. As she dances for him, tempts him and fawns over him, his scenes become more possessive, more violent. As Orwin’s accent fades, her enthusiasm falters and her words trail off, he remains in character. Gun slung over his shoulder, drawl in place, we watch as his power grows and her patience goes.

We know he’s acting but his commitment to the role is chilling. He questions a slap and a kiss but goes for them regardless. He shoves her to the floor. He stares into the camera. He growls a threat.

The play is quiet and at time stilted. But Orwin provides a platform for alpha male traits to breed, deliberately leaving little space for him to think before doing. By watching silently, we too are complicit in these acts of gendered brutality. By both following and disrupting Jean Luc-Goddard’s famous phrase that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun, Orwin has created a disturbing, wickedly manipulative exploration of consent, gender roles and violence.

Original: Fest

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In Amy Conway’s personal, personable show, she draws together her love of video games and the reality of depression, trying to understand them in conjunction with each other. How is Mario always happy even if he’s just fallen into a pit of fire? How does goodness always triumph?

Conway merges the two worlds, trying to use video game techniques to bop the bad thoughts on the head. But we don’t always have the power to press pause or save on our own lives. This show is a demonstration that Mario’s positive attitude can’t always be replicated in reality, that the pep talks on video games are often atrocious examples of how to talk to those in need of help, and that the difficulties of facing the darkness alone are sometimes insurmountable.

The audience are encouraged to get up and play silly games, spilling giggles over the seats and highlighting the social aspect of playing. She shares her love of these beautiful adventures with us. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and her honesty is gracious. It is not a slick show, but for the majority of it, she creates an atmosphere of comfort and support, as she tells of her own struggles, and her subsequent work with the Samaritans.

The highly personal nature of the show frames its parameters, sometimes restrictively so, at times feeling like an interactive essay. At the end of the show she confronts the audience in an action intended as supportive, but that is in reality—at least for myself and a friend in the theatre—extremely uncomfortable.

Aside from the final few minutes, Amy Conway’s Super Awesome World is in turns delightful and sombre, and a gentle hour of care welcome at a chaotic festival.

Original: Fest

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Anyone

A sledgehammer swings into flaming rubble. Darkness pours down her. A body. A rustle in the corner. A gap in the fence and a word between the line. They drive away and we don’t see them fall. Anyone’s Guess is a ghost story. Best told around a campfire (with a neon tube or two to spare), this is a tale of everyday monsters ready to eat you up. It looks at how what you owe and what you own can define and destroy you. How debt – emotional or financial- can burn a house and rip the skin from a skeleton.

When a story is not allowed to end it naturally deviates from its original plot points. It gets more outrageous and less realistic as it is forced to add new details. Barrel Organ make the concept of debt into such a story. It doesn’t just go away when you want it to. It grows like a tumour, clutching to you, hollowing you out.

Following their previous shows Nothingand Some People Talk About Violence, Barrel Organ have a weight of expectation on them. They play with this lightly, like a ball for the audience to catch. What to do with a long car journey? Time for a game? But Anyone’s Guess takes a different path from the company’s previous work, leaving behind the racing circles and competitions. There are traits that lean into their past: the disjointed style, the same breath leaping from one mouth to the other, the little unexpected moments to trip up audience expectations. Nothing played with form, then Some Peopleplayed with words. Here, Anyone’s Guess plays with time.

In some ways, Anyone’s Guess has none of this intensity. The sledgehammer and the flames are just a postage stamp. It’s a casual chat in a car that makes up the envelope. Bryony Davies and Rosie Gray are in trackies. One has a coffee cup. There are gaps of silence as they wait for someone to think of something to say. But it’s that everyday-ness of the show’s opening that makes the darkness what it is.

Jack Perkins’ writing doesn’t hold the tight logic of Lulu Raczka’s work. It carries a different energy, slightly wilder and more unruly. There are gaps plugged with blu-tak, when what it really needs is superglue.

The infuriating delight of Barrel Organ is their non-linear thinking, the feeling that they are always one step ahead, or rather one step sideways. The final image in Anyone’s Guess is unnecessarily obvious, a fun but on-the-nose decoration kicking its way into the otherwise nuanced direction. It should have been a white out.

Original: Exeunt

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black

It sounds like every other modern love story: two people meet online and fall in love. But this beautiful, bumbling three-hander leapfrogs over other couples to dig its way into your heart. It runs wildly, whacking the opponents with a drumstick along the way, and then awkwardly stops right behind you, waiting for you to turn around and realise that it’s what you’ve been looking for all along.

A man (Ste Murray) and a woman (Catherine Russell) match on a dating app. As they chat, a human incarnation of the internet (Aoife Spratt) watches. Spratt is a digital cupid, a judgemental, nosy, sarky, hilarious, geeky middle-man. In her retro haze, she highlights the modern realities of knowledge sharing, of not fully reading articles, of GIFs and pictures replacing words in our flirting vocabulary. When the relationship jolts or pauses, she is the desperate friend trying to pull them back together.

With the burden of a past event that can’t help but breed distrust and fear of intimacy, the decision to turn the funny face on a screen into a fully dimensional human being takes an astronomical leap of trust. In this way, Dylan Coburn Gray’s seemingly frivolous production carries a huge weight as it deals with something society still isn’t very good at talking about.

BlackCatfishMusketeer fizzles with charm, but it’s not the extraordinary lives or remarkable staging that makes it so endearing. It is the mundanity. These encounters, these beginnings, these GIFs sent late at night to a stranger you feel a connection with – they’re happening everyday. It is a deeply hopeful, humorous, delicate exploration of modern dating, of fear and trust, of suggestive ellipses, of love.

Original: Fest

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Locating the historic tussle between inventors Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla in an Orwellian dystopia, this cracked history gets lost in a sea of glitter.

In an alternative past, a determined Tesla (Zoe Feldman) is robotically manipulated by a demonic Edison (Jaz Blain). The fundamentals are rooted in truth as Edison was Tesla’s employer, and history tells of a great feud between them, but this wonky retelling focuses more on its aesthetics than on creating coherent content.

The controlling environment of Edison’s factory, where every step is overseen and every deviation noted, is a check list of traditional dystopian tropes. Surreal elements are randomly chucked in to disrupt this, but as a result feel incongruous: a lip-synced golden rave; a flirtatious pigeon. They lack a logical connection with the script.

Sound levels undulate, making the details of the plot harder to understand. Film clips and sound queues deafen and drown out the shouts of the actors. Even without background noise, some dialogue in the opening scenes is lost through a lack of projection.

There are lovely touches: translated subtitles projected onto a back wall, and a sparkling swimming pool of gold ribbon. Kirstyn Ballard’s compositions of five-part harmonies are luxurious, with the female chorus providing a beautiful background for several scenes. But they are underused, this delicacy not replicated throughout the rest of the production.

This company clearly have some bright ideas, but their execution could do with some polishing.

Original: Fest

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The progression of this show is not dissimilar to those nights when a friend gets blind drunk, starts a rambling story that never reaches its conclusion, gets very intimate and finally ends up in a corner crying. At a certain point in the performance the audience are forced to share their recent emotions. Today we’ve got: unease, confusion, terror. It is uncertain whether the suggestions refer to this year as a whole or specifically this show.

Manic clown Alexandra Tatarsky presents her audience with an endurance test of tumbling, nonsensical garbling. One word sparks a new thought as she sparsley covers the broad ground of the disaster of American politics, though at no point offering insight or humour on any event or person. This element of performance art could almost be taken as a clever literal staging of America today, if it were not for the fact that she follows this section with a session of laughter yoga.

It is exhaustingly ridiculous in the least entertaining way. Laughter, tears, vomit, scream. A deep-throat ketchup scene pushes it beyond this reviewer’s patience and gag reflex.

There is enough vomit-inducing, tear-staining, shatteringly vile politics going on right now. We don’t need it to be staged too, especially not when it runs over its time slot by 10 minutes. Unease. Confusion. Terror. Mixed in with a good dollop of boredom and frustration, that pretty much sums it up.

Original: Fest

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Dickless delights in misanthropy. Lauren Downie and Tessa Jane Fairey take turns at performing Aisha Josiah’s one-woman play. Her characters are a playground to swing across, and Josiah arms them artfully, quips and pint in hand.

Saff has a lack of fear: of people, of sex, of words. She walks with a swagger and an undercut, her attitude large enough to fill every venue in Edinburgh. Taking us through her night of family feuds, boys and broken friendships, she is a master storyteller. At home, she gets in everywhere for free because of her face. Here, she holds the audience in the palm of her hand thanks to her words.

Oli is sleazy but charming. Even when he’s got himself into a right mess, his confidence oozes unfailingly. Though the gender issues thrown to him midway through the show offer a potentially potent platform for explanation, it’s not given enough breathing space. Like the wonderfully surreal animal slaughter sprinkled throughout, the extraordinary events of the night are simply accepted and downed with the next drink.

Downie switches character with aplomb, not just Saff and Oli but family members and friends too, painted with curious details that make their characters entirely believable, like the lovingly-formed Old Boy with his bubbling, fish-like uncertainty.

Dickless provides hilarity in the bleakest of moments. It is easy to overlook Saff and Oli’s dubious morals and fall in step with them as they leave chaos in their wake.

Original: Fest

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