Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Edinburgh Fringe 2013: Pre-festival Picks

Photo by byronv2 under Creative Commons licence
Doesn't time fly! It's nearly that time of year again — when actors, directors, singers, comedians, writers, dancers, ventriloquists, poets, acrobats and performers of all kinds make the trek to Scotland's capital to try their luck at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. And the rest of us follow, whether we're a part of the action, reviewing their efforts, or simply enjoying it from a safe (we hope...) vantage point in the audience. As the world's biggest arts festival grows steadily each year, 2013 will see more shows than ever gracing Edinburgh's venues: at the last count, 2871 events encompassing over 24,000 performers.

With all those options offering thousands of different emotions, experiences and possibilities, how on earth do you separate the good, the bad and the ugly from your Fringe guide? I decided to come up with a Top 10 list of intriguing, promising or exciting things from this year's festival — except, of course, there's too much to choose from so even I had to resort to a Top 15 instead. Check 'em out:

1. I Need A Doctor: The Unauthorised Whosical Adventure — Stormy Teacup Theatre Ltd./Pleasance Courtyard/31 Jul  26 Aug/£6-11
Being a massive fan of Doctor Who and of musicals, I couldn't really ignore this one. A parody of the beloved BBC One series with songs such as 'Companion's Lament' and 'Phonebox of Love', this is possibly the nerdiest show on the programme, but looks to be providing a healthy dose of silliness at the Pleasance Courtyard this year.

2. Titus Andronicus — Hiraeth Artistic Productions/theSpace@Surgeons Hall/2  24 Aug/£10-12
Shakespeare reinvented can go either of two ways, but this production may be on to an intelligent restaging. One of four productions of Titus Andronicus at the Fringe this year, this particular version reimagines the action of the Bard's goriest tragedy in the midst of 1980s Britain. It's a tough play to pull off, with all its over-the-top blood and guts — but in the violence of skinhead culture, the extreme emotions that lead to all this anger, vengeance and bloodshed start to make sense, and to really hit home.

3. Austentatious: An Improvised Jane Austen Novel — Milk Monitors/Laughing Horse @ The Counting House/1  25 Aug/Free Non-Ticketed
Anyone who read my blog during last year's Fringe may remember how I raved about this lot — and I'm so happy to say they're back! Some of the best improv you'll see in terms of quickness and hilarity, and all Austen-themed. Austentatious manages to mock the author's stereotypes whilst showing it holds much affection for her, and based on audience suggestions they construct a brand new Austen novel every day. Last year crowds were queuing down the street to see this, so arrive early! It's lovely, and pretty astounding, to see that the show is still part of the Free Fringe, as I'm sure the troupe could sell out a ticketed event with no problems. A hugely likeable comedy group who will have you in stitches.

4. Rachel Parris: The Commission — Laughing Horse @ The Counting House/– 25 Aug/Free Non-Ticketed
Following on from Austentatious, many of their members are involved in other shows at the festival, including the delightful Rachel Parris. Often taking the role of naive, pretty heroine in the Austen-themed tales, her solo performance is a chance to see a wider range of her comedic and musical skills, with topics such as Disney and The X Factor on the promised list of targets. It will be great to see this talented performer showing she's got a darker side and some real bite.

5. No Place Like — Le Mot Juste/Zoo/2 – 26 Aug/£4-9
A piece of physical, verbatim theatre inspired by real-life conversations, this work examines the lives of elderly care home residents: it's nice to see that the play promotes itself as "a celebration of life", rather than presenting these places as morbid or depressing, and there is the promise of comedy as well as poignancy in the variety of memories that emerge.

6. The Pin — Pleasance Courtyard/31 July – 26 Aug/£6-11
Again, this show is no new discovery for me as I saw these guys doing their thing — with much success, I might add — at university in Cambridge. Since then they've been busy making a name for themselves with a sell-out run at last year's Fringe. However, things have changed recently as the trio has become a duo: it'll be interesting to see how this changes their act, but with their usual combination of wit, silliness and deadpan delivery, booking early will surely still be necessary for these rising stars of the circuit.

7. Boys — No Prophet Theatre Company &  Close Up Theatre/C aquila/1 – 26 Aug/£6.50-10.50
Last year No Prophet Theatre (starring Will Merrick of Skins fame) took on Simon Stephens' gritty shocker of a play, Punk Rock. And damn, was it good. They're following up that edge-of-the-seat performance this year with dark comedy Boys, also focusing on a group of adolescents, this time on the edge of adulthood as they graduate from university. Its "drug-fuelled irresponsibility" recalls the glory days of Skins, but No Prophet's 2012 production certainly showed that this group were not going to rely on the TV fame of one of their number. If the ensemble deliver as much electricity as last year, this will be one not to miss.

8. Nirbhaya — Assembly, Riverside Studios & Poorna Jagannathan/Assembly Hall/1 – 26 Aug/£10-16
Yael Farber took Edinburgh by storm in 2012, with a sell-out run for her searingly passionate and volatile Mies Julie, a South African adaptation of Strindberg's 19th century classic that became the hot ticket of the festival. This summer she returns with a piece of new writing, which is set to be even more blisteringly gut-wrenching. Nirbhaya is inspired by the gang rape and murder oJyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi in 2012, which opened the floodgates for revelations about the brutal treatment of women in India; Nirbhaya (one of the pseudonyms used in the press for the victim, meaning 'fearless one') attempts to break through the silence that surrounded the issue. Mies Julie was the most powerful piece of theatre I have ever seen, and if Farber brings the same extraordinary rawness and explosiveness to these real-life events, it is sure to rock the Fringe this summer.

9. Dick Whittington — University of Bristol Pantomime Society/theSpace on North Bridge/2 – 17 Aug Aug/£4-7
Ok, ok — I'm a bit biased. There's a small chance one of my loveliest best friends is starring in this. Nevertheless it's also a great option if you want a bit of good old-fashioned fun and silliness with a healthy dose of grown-up wit and humour. These students from Bristol are experts at serving up everything you'd expect from a panto, but with added extras and without too much of the cheese on top. With romance, songs and a dastardly villain, this is sure to put a smile on your face — plus it's great value for money!

10. Voices Made Night — The Magnet Theatre Company & Baxter Theatre Centre/Assembly Hall/1 – 26 Aug/£10-15
It seems that South African theatre is showing us all how it's done. Here the nation's top physical theatre company arrive in Edinburgh with their adaptations of the short stories of Mozambican author, Mia Couto. Described previously as "the cutting edge of South African art and culture", this company seek to relate his tales of love, loss, transformation, damage and forgiveness through the use of physical theatre and ever-changing characterisation and movement. Expect theatre that is passionate, moving and altogether beautiful.

11. Our Glass House — Common Wealth/Summerhall/13 – 25 Aug/Free Ticketed
Promenade and site-specific theatre are always to be found scattered across a fringe festival, and can work either fantastically or terribly. A promenade piece always feels like a risky choice, as the directorial decisions are so different to those of a conventional narrative work. Yet if the effect is truly immersive, it can be incredibly powerful. One such production, which certainly has the potential to be uncomfortable in either a good or bad way, is Our Glass House, a new work exploring domestic abuse. Staging this in a residential house should bring home (literally) the reality of this issue, as it is seen in its true setting rather than within the artifice of a theatre. Using fantasy, songs and choreography, there are a lot of elements in this — it has the potential to be too fragmented to deliver real energy or power, but if it is judged right it could be a truly eye-opening and compelling work.

12. Alice in Wonderland — Oxford University Dramatic Society/C nova/31 Jul – 26 Aug/£4.50-10.50
Having taken on the tricky tale of a murderess, Machinal, at last year's Fringe, OUDS are back with the rather lighter offering of Alice in Wonderland. Bringing out the vibrant insanity and twisty darkness of Lewis Carroll's classic children's novel, this adaptation throws you right into the world of the Mad Hatter and all his weird and wonderful companions — jump down the rabbit hole if you dare!

13. Nish Kumar is a Comedian — Nish Kumar/Underbelly, Bristo Square/31 Jul – 25 Aug/£6-11
After catching him guest-performing at the Footlights Free Show last year (one to look out for, by the way), I was impressed by Nish Kumar's set. Charming, witty, fresh and sharp, he delivers easy gags that nonetheless have a bite to them: certainly a name to keep an eye on, his one-hour show at Underbelly will be a tenner well spent!

14. Desperately Seeking the Exit — Peter Michael Marino/Laughing Horse @ The Counting House/1 – 25 Aug/Free Non-Ticketed
When you've invested a whole heap of time and money into a new West End musical and it closes within a month, you might lock yourself in your house and weep for a year, hiding from the embarrassment and despondency that might accompany such a flop — certainly, you might hide from the critics who gave it a panning. Peter Michael Marino has done no such thing: when Desperately Seeking Susan (the plot of the Madonna film of the same name, with the hits of Blondie crammed unceremoniously into it) turned out to be a bit of an epic fail back in 2007, Marino turned the situation to his advantage. Taking his new show's title from a damning review by Charles Spencer, Desperately Seeking the Exit tells the tale of how his musical flopped so badly, turning a theatrical car crash into an original, brutally honest, camp yet sensitive comedy. A phoenix of a show — from the ashes comes a new triumph.

15. Jonny and the Baptists: Bigger Than Judas — Pleasance Dome/31 July – 26 Aug/£6-10
Some musical comedy to round up my picks of the programme. Last year while editing Ed Fringe Review, my co-editor and I discovered this band and listened to their hilarious album on repeat in times of stress. With catchy tunes, sharp satire and a dash of absolute nonsense, Jonny and the Baptists make you laugh even more each time you hear their songs, as you pick up subtleties and asides that may have slipped by you the first time. More than one visit is a must!

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