Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh
E4 Udderbelly, Edinburgh
August, 2006
*** / ****

Until media attention was seized by the affair of Winston Churchill's banned cigar in Allegiance, the Assembly Rooms' intended flagship theatre production had been Midnight Cowboy, bringing together as it does two solid Fringe "bankers". Adaptor Tim Fountain (who has worked from James Leo Herlihy's original novel rather than the 1969 John Schlesinger film) caused a storm here a couple of years ago with the first outing of his self-publicising solo show Sex Addict, and New York-based director John Clancy has garnered a shelf-ful of awards for savage high-octane satires such as Fatboy and last year's screwmachine/eyecandy.

It is puzzling, then, that the result should be so relatively sedate. Fountain's adaptation does not skimp on the squalor of Texan hustler Joe Buck's attempts to sleep his way to fortune in New York, but there is no great electricity here either. Charles Aitken as Joe is little more than a pretty face (though, arguably, so was Jon Voight), comprehensively outclassed by Con O'Neill as pickpocket Ratso Rizzo: a high-pitched voice, a mass of nervous tics and a body slowly falling to pieces. Clancy has some nice ideas he uses Joe's beloved radio to locate the action within the America of the time, and Bob Dylan songs during scene changes to comment on events but his characteristic top-gear pacing is missing, perhaps because Fountain has not found an alternative to short, cinematic scenes requiring frequent changes of set and props.

Pride of place in the Assembly programmes of a few years ago went to plays Twelve Angry Men, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest with casts consisting largely of comedians. The main instance of such a project this year can be seen at the Fringe's most visually striking venue, a huge upside-down purple cow christened the Udderbelly. Talk Radio stars Phil Nichol (a comic who won one of the Fringe's major acting awards last year) as disillusioned late-night phone-in DJ Barry Champlain, Stephen K Amos as his producer, Mike McShane as the station manager and former Perrier winner Will Adamsdale as a stoned teenage listener. For nearly an hour and a half, Nichol sits behind a microphone and console, acting with face and voice only (indeed, when he stands up he tends to overdo things, swaggering rather than striding around the studio), but he is thoroughly compelling. In Stewart Lee's excellent production of Eric Bogosian's play, it's nevertheless worth taking your eye off Nichol now and again to watch Amos engaging in some unobtrusively brilliant "listening" acting.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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