Edinburgh Fringe theatre reviews: Sunday Herald, Aug 5, 2012

Fringe Theatre

 

Angels

Traverse

Until August 26

 

Bullet Catch

Traverse

Until August 26

 

All That Is Wrong

Traverse

Until August 12

 

Dr Quimpugh’s Compendium Of Peculiar Afflictions

Summerhall

Until August 26

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

Imagine a one-man play, set in a cell in a Scottish police station and co-authored by Dostoyevsky, Kafka and Peter McDougall, and you will have something approximating Ronan O’Donnell’s fine monodrama Angels.

Security guard Nick Prentice, hauled in on suspicion of a workplace murder, is an innocent man; innocent, that is, of the killing, not of writing graphic, pornographic fantasies starring himself and Scarlett Johansson. His literary efforts have come into the hands of a cocky and brutish police inspector, for whom the masturbatory texts are proof of Prentice’s moral character and, therefore, “corroborating evidence”.

Legally, this is nonsense, of course. However, Prentice’s disinterested, police-acquired legal brief isn’t going to prevent the cop from indulging himself in a violent game of cat and mouse with the suspect.

The drama, which is performed by Iain Robertson and directed by Graeme Maley, originated in Glasgow’s prolific lunchtime theatre, A Play, A Pie And A Pint. It is, from first to last, a powerfully atmospheric and bleakly comic piece of theatre.

Robertson, who is, to my mind, one of Scotland’s finest stage actors, gives a bravura performance. From Prentice’s terror of the inspector’s assaults to his psychological refuge in Johansson and her attendant “angels”, the actor gives brilliant physical and verbal expression to O’Donnell’s dark, working-class poetry.

From one Glasgow show making its Edinburgh Fringe debut to another, as theatre deviser extraordinaire Rob Drummond brings Bullet Catch (produced by Clydeside arts venue The Arches) to the Traverse. As we saw in last year’s show Rob Drummond: Wrestling, the dramatist is fascinated by the theatricality of entertainments which are not typically considered to be theatre.

With his latest show he turns his attention to one of the most frightening and captivating tricks of stage illusionism. The bullet catch, in which the illusionist appears to catch a bullet (often between their teeth) which is fired at them at close range, has a long, and sometimes fatal, history.

Drummond, who sets his piece in Georgian London, attempts, with considerable success, to generate the same kind of tension and amazement that would have attended the performances of the old music hall magicians. Using his trademark charm, he persuades a member of the audience (whom we have no reason to suspect is a stooge) to assist him in his various tricks, up to and including the bullet catch itself.

Drummond has achieved an impressive proficiency as an illusionist; with each trick that he executes, one has greater confidence in his capacity to pull off the bullet catch. Combined with a humanist narrative, told through the letters of an unfortunate audience member involved in a 1912 trick which went wrong, and lovely period design (by Francis Gallop), the show forces us to confront our fascination with watching others put themselves in danger (whether physically or morally) on a stage.

If Drummond’s piece is a strong advert for the possibilities of devised theatre, All That Is Wrong, the latest work from Flemish company Ontroerend Goed, certainly is not. Regular visitors to the Fringe, the Belgian group often work with young people; the abundantly titled Once And For All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up And Listen was a notable success, whereas Teenage Riot was disappointingly insubstantial.

With their latest piece – a two-hander in which a young woman creates a sprawling spider diagram on a series of blackboards, while the young man offers advice and technical assistance – they have reached a new low in flimsy, self-indulgent minimalism. From the single word “I”, the young woman brainstorms a series of words and phrases which are, firstly, about her personal identity, but quickly become political; the politics are mainly leftist and anti-capitalist (although the neo-Malthusian claim that the world has “too many people” sits uncomfortably with her radical image).

A combination of political cliché (both in the statements on the boards and in its reflections on discontented youth) and almost anti-performance, this show (like last year’s Ontroerend Goed piece, Audience) is offensive in its arrogant disregard for the theatre-goer.

If the Flemish production has an antithesis, in terms of small-scale theatre on this year’s Fringe, it might be the excellent chamber opera Dr Quimpugh’s Compendium Of Peculiar Afflictions, which is part of the exciting programme at the Summerhall venue. Produced by Petersham Playhouse, with superb music by Martin Ward (who has composed work for Royal Opera and English National Ballet) and a sparkling libretto by Phil Porter (who has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, among others), it is a delightfully quirky, humorous and touching piece of musical theatre.

The elderly Dr Farquar Quimpugh (a brilliant, multi-talented Hoffmann-type character), looks back over his career in psychiatry. Terrified by, and therefore drawn towards, mental illness, he encountered some extraordinary cases; including that of a prison governor’s wife (whose “alien hand” led her to commit a series of crimes, culminating in the murder of her husband) and a woman for whom any everyday object could appear edible.

Beautifully set and costumed, with tremendous playing by an accomplished trio (on cello, violin and piano), the piece boasts outstanding performances from baritone Robert Gildon (as Dr Quimpugh) and Natalie Raybould and Tamsin Dalley (as the doctor’s nurses, and all the other characters). There is a curious continuity breakdown, when a mentally distressed Welshman dons a Hibernian FC beanie hat, but that is a small blemish in an otherwise tremendous production.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 5, 2012

© Mark Brown

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