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Tip for Fringe performers: don’t wear whiteface in a poorly air-conditioned venue, unless you want to make a deliberate point about the artifice of your presentation dripping away along with the pan-stick. Such a rationalisation is almost, but not quite, plausible in the case of Theatre O’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (Traverse). The aftermath of provocateur Adolf Verloc’s incompetent bomb attack sees more naturalistic human drama than stylised Expressionism, but it reverts at the end with a carnival-sideshow coda. London audiences can see it at the Young Vic in September.
Another sideshow presentation offered a delicious moment of dramatic irony the afternoon I saw it. BlackSKYwhite’s Omega is a kind of carny from hell. Like most sideshows, it is ultimately hollow and oversold, even more so by being staged in the huge Music Hall of the Assembly Rooms. The performance I attended saw numerous walkouts, evidently from boredom rather than shock. However, since every word of the show is pre-recorded (the Russian company mime to English voices), the barker was unable to amend his closing announcement to us; his admonishment that we check that none of our neighbours had disappeared during the show seemed much less spooky after watching around a third of them slope off of their own accord.
In the same space, the now-traditional production of a straight play with a cast consisting largely of comedians is this year an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shawshank Redemption. It is quite as solid a piece of work as the film version (whose status as the all-time favourite of so many is a mystery to me). As narrator Red, Omid Djalili may be almost entirely unlike Morgan Freeman, but he has extensive form as an actor as well as a comic (I first reviewed him up here as an actor exactly 20 years ago); Kyle Secor as Andy Dufresne also has more going for him than mere Tim Robbins-like ectomorphism. Ian Lavender of Dad’s Army fame makes an appearance as veteran con Brooksie, looking uncannily like Tony Blair’s actor father-in-law Tony Booth.
Shawshank is a far more honourable venture than Making News (Pleasance Courtyard). I did not see last year’s offering Coalition by the same writers, Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky, but I see no reason to question its lukewarm reviews on the basis of this satire of the BBC. The likes of Suki Webster and Sara Pascoe make decent fists of their roles, and the central scene between Phill Jupitus as the director-general and Hal Cruttenden as a self-regarding interviewer succeeds, but this is despite rather than because of any direction. The director seems to think that his job consists solely of “blocking” the actors’ movements, and quite fails to rein in, for instance, the player who shows an uncanny talent for always facing upstage, even when standing upstage; I cannot identify him because, well, I never saw his face.
I’m afraid I’m no more impressed by the venue’s flagship comic play The Three Lions. It is nicely staged by a real director, Philip Wilson, but William Gaminara’s script about the 2010 English bid for the 2018 World Cup is staggeringly predictable: David Beckham (Sean Browne) and Prince William (Tom Davey) are at opposite social ends of the same nice-but-dim scale, while David Cameron (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart in a well-observed but rather monotonous portrayal) is a tetchy, vain, patronising pillock who thoroughly deserves to be caught out by the Murdoch media.
Similarly narrowly confined in acting terms is Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag (Underbelly Cowgate). Waller-Bridge has built up a deserved reputation as a fast-rising actor: clever, audacious, eccentric yet sensitive. She makes a number of smart, understated choices for her solo portrayal of a woman who compulsively seeks validation through sex, but on this occasion her palette isn’t varied enough to do full justice to the incisive script. However, since this script is written by Waller-Bridge herself, she still emerges well ahead of the game.
I thought at first that Gemma Whelan was likewise playing too much on one note in Dark Vanilla Jungle (Pleasance Courtyard), but her performance and Philip Ridley’s script gradually deepen to reveal the same kind of desperation at the core of a much younger character. Ridley is known for breathtaking blends of East End London grit and fantastical surrealism; I cannot recall when or if he has ever written a play which so entirely eschews the latter element and simply shows us the world as it is, however frantically protagonist Andrea tries to pretend that it is at least a little bit more glittery.
A Ridleyan blend of violence and folklore, with added green agitprop, comes in a deliciously exuberant performance by Donal O’Kelly in his Fionnuala, one of two monologues presented in rep as Donal O’Kelly’s Brace (Hill Street). I did not realise until the piece had ended that it is a specific indictment of Shell’s real-life Corrib gas project in northwestern Ireland.
Finally, in Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen Volume Too (Pleasance Courtyard), the comical Bard of Balham once more turns his attention to Laughing Len. I know reviewers should always be careful about giving away a comedian’s jokes or the climax of a show; however, I’m still more keenly aware that I may never get another chance to use the phrase “nude accordionist in a Leonard Nimoy mask”.
For another Fringe report from Ian Shuttleworth, see www.ft.com/theatre