Attention spans are short on the Edinburgh Fringe; any play that goes on for more than 90 minutes, or any comedian for more than an hour, is either very brave or very rash. It's all the more welcome, then, when a show that looked in prospect like an obligation to be endured turns out to be a fiery glory.
One such is theatre babel's production of Thebans (***** Assembly Rooms), which once again employs Liz Lochhead as adapter, following the same team's success with Medea (2000-02). Lochhead has created a single two-hour journey from Sophocles' Oedipus The King to his Antigone, bridging the gap with segments from Euripides' Phoenician Women and Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes. Graham McLaren's production is solidly rather than spectacularly impressive, with a cast of nine serving as the chorus of Thebans when they are not taking individual roles. But, even more than Jennifer Black as Oedipus's mother/wife Jokasta and Jahn Kazek as her brother Kreon, the real star is Lochhead's text. It doesn't iron out the differences in tone between the authors, and possibly doesn't set out to do so. What it does is encompass a magnificent range from modern demotic to verse like a granite monument; it expresses the individual and the civic, as personal and family obligations conflict with the governance of Thebes; the human and the divine, as speakers appeal to the gods who seem singularly absent from the grim mechanism of prophecy and fulfilment. As a combination of poetry and performability in an adaptation from the Greek, this puts Lochhead up beside the late Kenneth Mcleish, than which there can be no higher praise.
The Riot Group achieved take-off velocity on their fourth Fringe outing last year, with Victory At The Dirt Palace, a sort-of rewrite of King Lear in the world of TV network news. This year's offering, Pugilist Specialist (**** Pleasance), is an indictment of current American imperialism, especially in the Middle East, dramatised in the event of a four-person "black ops" assassination raid on a target who is clearly Saddam Hussein, though never named as such. My worries beforehand that this would see the company's dense verbal sparring subsumed in a torrent of shoutiness proved utterly groundless; this play is a little more muted than the last, but just as sharp. It does expose writer/director Adriano Shaplin's occasional linguistic over-reaching, and in casting himself as the most flippant character he also gives himself the greatest share of the one-liners (he eschews the description "sniper" in favour of "hopeless romantic"). But all told, it's another slice of the smart, jet-back cynicism we have come to value from the company.
James Ellis is the kind of old stager that it's a privilege to watch in action, especially close up as in Kings Of The Road (*** Pleasance Dome). Brian McAvera has written a memory play as three generations of Belfast bus drivers – one of them (Ellis) a ghost – swap recollections and anecdotes. Comedian ed Byrne does a more than adequate job in a semi-straight role as Ellis's character's grandson. The piece is the theatrical equivalent of listening to one of Van Morrison's nostalgia songs: you know there's better around, but this does the job fine to be going on with.
Much the same is true of A Very Naughty Boy: The Life Of Graham Chapman (*** Pleasance), a two-hander which tells the story of the Python crew's most erratic member – raging alcoholic, founder member of Gay Lib and the only Python no longer with us – through his relationship with his writing partner John Cleese. Author Adrian Poynton, playing Chapman, uses a bizarrely contrived accent and plays his character far too camply (when Poynton's script describes Chapman's homosexuality as "no mincing", his performance adds unintentional dramatic irony), but the writing is thoughtful and clever in its use of greatest-hits Python material to lead us into a more contemplative mood.
Last year's Perrier comedy award winner Daniel Kitson this year offers A Made Up Story (*** The Pod): a fixed narrative script that allows him to paraphrase but not really to digress from his tale. It feels like an attempt to find an outlet that will accommodate both the gleefully acid side of his comedy and the truly heart-warming sentiment he also embraces, not unlike the achievement of fellow comic Ben Moor several Fringes ago. It hasn't quite come off yet, but Kitson's almost inexplicable charm sees it through.
Dave Gorman finds himself in similar territory with his Googlewhack Adventure (*** George Square Theatre). A Googlewhack is a Web page which search engine Google returns as the one and only result when you search for a combination of two words on the Net: Gorman's own Googlewhack is "Francophile namesakes". His autobiographical account of his reluctant quest to find and meet an unbroken chain of ten Googlewhacks is in much the same vein as the search for namesakes which made his reputation. This time, though, his material feels rather more intractable; it stretches itself out to an hour and a half, insists on wildly erratic pacing and loops back awkwardly on itself. Gorman, like Kitson, is an immensely engaging raconteur, but he needs to be harder on his script.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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