Ten of the best shows at the Edinburgh festivals

From Alan Cumming singing about Liza Minnelli to a heart-stopping play about depression, this year’s festival has had it all

 

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s biggest arts festival, is winding to a close, and an entire city has been complicit in the endeavour. This is compounded by the International Book Festival and the Edinburgh International Festival, which take place at the same time and complement the Fringe’s range and scale.

There is a strong Irish connection with both, thanks to Fringe chief executive Shona McCarthy and the International Festival director Fergus Linehan. Here are 10 of the best things we saw this year.

Brennan Reece: Everglow
Pleasance

Brennan Reece’s Fringe debut, in one of the Pleasance bunkers, is a cosy story about his tricky crossing-over from childhood into adulthood, and his hopes for retaining a kind of “everglow”. Weaving relatable observations into a very personal tale, it’s a lovely hour.

Measure for Measure
Lyceum

Declan Donnellan’s arresting production, for his Cheek by Jowl company and the Pushkin Theatre of Moscow, is dazzling in its intensity. Donnellan works with a company of 13 Russian actors, and his deft handling of Shakespeare’s exploration of power, corruption and government loses nothing in translation. In fact, the Russian element only adds to this provocative meditation on the abuses of autocracy. This is physical, memorable, fast-paced theatre that packs a hefty punch.

Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs
The Hub

The prodigal son of Scotland returns for a residency that is all storytelling, through anecdotes and song. The venue lends itself to Cumming’s show, which channels a 1920s speakeasy, replete with a pink neon “Club Cumming” sign.

The actor and his three-piece band take you on a real journey, where a saucy story about tattoo removal sits beside an anecdote about Liza Minnelli and a tear-stained powder puff.

His song choices are diverse, taking in Miley Cyrus and Bertolt Brecht, and evolved out of dressing room sessions during his Broadway tenure in Cabaret.

The show surprises, mingling serious subjects such as his grandfather’s post-traumatic stress disorder, with something like a mash-up of Stephen Sondheim classics, before closing on Cumming’s heartfelt take on The Ladies Who Lunch, immortalised by Elaine Stritch.

Luna Park
Zoo Southside

Stonecrabs Theatre Company takes Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Donald Margulies’ play and infuses it with charming physical theatre and clever direction. The three actors are graceful, delicately bringing to life the broken dreams of 1930s America, the Great Depression and Coney Island.

Revolt. She said. Revolt again
Traverse

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s take on Alice Birch’s piece on revolution doesn’t disappoint. The watchword is disruption – how to topple the status quo – taking us through various examples of how our society is corrupt and misogynist. Birch’s grasp on language, and how it treats women, is searing and offers plenty of questions and no easy answers.

The strongest scene is perhaps the first, where a man and a woman trade off sex talk, with received notions being turned upside down to often humorous and unsettling effect.

Every Brilliant Thing
Roundabout @ Summerhall

Duncan Macmillan’s heart-stopping play about depression, and guilt at not being able to fix people you love, is coming to the Dublin Theatre Festival (Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, October 11th-16th) and should not be missed. Jonny Donahoe is utterly engaging in his performance, which brilliantly implicates the audience and takes you into a long list of “every brilliant thing”, along with mental health, marriage and skinny dipping.

This is an overwhelming piece of theatre about the beauty in frailty and the uplifting nature of the smallest things.

Anohni
Playhouse

There is something devastating about Anohni’s latest album, Hopelessness. Much like the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Revolt, it tries to engage us in a dialogue about femininity, gender, revolution and the pollution that surrounds interesting debate and ideas. But live, Anohni’s music is even more visceral.

To the sound of drones, Naomi Campbell dances on a large screen, which is mesmerising, if a little long.

She is the first of many women projected on to the screen, juxtaposed with Anohni, who takes to the stage with her face covered in a black veil. She is like a moving statue, a Corradini sculpture, approaching songs such as the fierce 4 Degrees and Watch Me with real intensity.

Aided by Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke, dressed in monkish robes, the entire experience is emotional, unusual and at times distressing. Rightly so, as Anohni has evolved into a protest singer, tackling climate change, sexual violence and hypocrisy. As she sings “We will never, never again give birth to violent men” it feels like the room is collapsing in on itself.

Breakfast Plays: The Conversation
Traverse

The Traverse’s Breakfast Plays are based around a particular theme. This year, the question “Will technology tear us apart or will it save us from ourselves?” was posed to its four associate artists, Stef Smith, Morna Pearson, Tim Price and Rob Drummond.

Drummond’s response, The Conversation, is an elegant piece about a man who goes online to find solace after a friend’s funeral and starts to communicate with a chatbot. The two-hander is a little rough around the edges, reflecting the day rehearsal these pieces get, but it investigates something fascinating: is there humanity in artificial intelligence or are we losing our humanity?

Daffodils
Traverse

Rochelle Bright’s “play with songs” is billed as a true love story that begins in the mid-1960s in Hamilton, New Zealand, amid a daffodil patch. Todd Emerson and Colleen Davis play Eric and Rose, who fall in love, marry and then fall apart.

It’s partly a social, musical and family history of New Zealand, with the live band and actors performing songs by Bic Runga, Crowded House and others. At first it appears slight, but the inventive staging, live instrumentation and projections of old, evocative photographs and videos situate the narrative in richer pastures.

Daniel Kitson Presents an Insufficient Number of Undeveloped Ideas over 90 Testing Minutes
Noon, Monday, August 29th, Stand Three

A trip to Edinburgh wouldn’t be complete without some time spent in the company of Daniel Kitson. His Mouse:The Persistence of an Unlikely Thought at the Traverse is a warm, thoughtful piece about friendship, but it is his loose, free-flowing show at the Stand that reminds us why he is one of the world’s best comic minds.

This hour and a half resembles verbal bebop, with Kitson’s distractions and digressions providing the most entertainment. He thrives on breaking the fourth wall; one moment he’s cutting cable ties off chairs to make the front row more comfortable, the next he’s running out of the room, leaving a bearded man on his birthday to take over the show.

His interactions with the audience are a joy, because they reveal a real humanity and an ability to skewer inauthenticity and communicate his particularly brilliant worldview. A total original.

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