Saturday, 3 September 2016

#edfringe2016: Ghost Quartet: Summer Hall ★★★★★

Dave Malloy - Photography by Ryan Jansen
A 9pm showing of Ghost Quartet, by Ghost Quartet, was how I spent my last night at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Set at the Roundabout, a large tent at the back of Summer Hall, encased musical curiosities and explorations of ghost stories read to fringe audiences in a spectacular blend of music styles. Jazz, slow rock, gospel, ballad or emo, call it what you want, but one thing's for sure and that's that the music is a collection of crafty creativity you've never heard of before. 

The music and lyrics were composed and written by New York-based Dave Malloy, and he has accolades to boast. Success from his off-Broadway hit Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 grabbed punters attention, and Ghost Quartet is a testament that his individual score writing prevails. 

There in a carpet floored, round swirl of eager music lovers, Molloy, Gelsey Bell, Brittain Ashford and Brent Arnold took to the small circle stage facing each other with a wide range of peculiar instruments at hand. This included an erhu, dulcimer, ukulele, Celtic harp, metallophone and their exhilarating, harmonising voices.

As the marketing suggests there are moments where audiences are left in the dark, encouraged to listen to the music for itself and pay attention to the pivotal details of the ghostly tales. However, the performance as a whole isn't linear or perhaps it is and I may have missed the punch; there are patchy mentions of a broken camera, a talking bear, a Thelonious monk, an astronomer, a man that dies in a subway and lost sisters reunited, but all seem unrelated, and somehow related. 

Arnold is an intelligent cellist. Malloy is the man with a capital M - a pioneering rhythm-maker, while Armold and Bell produce the most amazing vocal sounds that can bring you to tears in their solo ballads. 

Engaging talent, enthusiasm, and passion are harmoniously harnessed by Ghost Quartet. I'd highly recommend this to anyone who loves soul and the idea of clapping and stomping until their hands and feet hurt, to the sound of loud percussions instruments. 

#edfringe2016: The Snow Child - Bloody Chamber Opera ★★★★

Helena Moore sings as the Snow Child - Photography by Johannes Hjorth
Owain Park, a young composer literally at the end of his final year studying Music at Cambridge University, presented his chamber opera The Snow Child at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. His eerie, bleak musical landscape instils the haunting story of a count and countess and their encounter with a beautiful snow child in the dead of winter. 

Adapted from Angela Carter’s fairy tale from her short stories book The Bloody Chamber, Park captures the disturbing, dark shadows that befall the innocent snow child. Gareth Mattey’s staging was minimal. Paper was sporadically laid on the stage with moody lights above, alluding to icicles and setting our frosty scene.

With a unique chamber orchestra and six talented voices, which include three narrators, the music is unsettling, atmospheric and distinctive. Through the poetic chamber score, the opera subtly combines with splendid solo passages from its singers, which hint on the macabre and ghastly nature of the short tale.

The musicians of the performance (currently waiting for official names from the company) I saw at Edinburgh’s Paradise in Augustines were superb. String, percussion, and woodwind instruments had their own place within the score that evolved into a variety of textures and intricate details, highlighting the sinister winter’s journey. 

Peter Lidbetter and Amber Evans gave fine performances as the count and countess. They evoked their characters well – a passive and lustful count besotted by the naked child in the snow and a green-eyed countess. The narrators, Hannah King, Ed Roberts and Sam Mitchell, also provided interesting vocal colouring as a group ensemble or solo act. Yet, Helena Moore provided the purity and virtuousness of our Snow Child. Dressed in white, her voice conjured the angelic and naïve victim, the counter balance of the count and countess who eventually murder and ravage her. 

Amber Evans sings as the Countess - Photography by Johannes Hjorth
Intriguing as this new work was, however, I felt that surtitles or a libretto at hand would have been beneficial. At times I felt out of the loop and unsure of where we were in the story.

Before we were introduced to the opera, Moore sang Marco Galvani’s work The Deserted House, a poem written by Alfred Lord Tennyson, to open up the evening. Acting as a warm-up and neat pathway into The Snow Child, it wasn’t as inspiring or stimulating as the chamber opera itself. Yet the intention was there to prepare the audience for a gruesome expedition of grime story-telling.  

Edinburgh Fringe is over, but to find more information about Owain Park, please click here. 

Thursday, 1 September 2016

#edfringe2016: Brundibár - Abridged Opera

Children of the Abridged Opera Company perform at Edinburgh Fringe Festival
Brundibár is a children’s opera that was written in a concentration camp in Theresienstadt. In 1942, it was performed there 55 times by Jewish musicians and children. It is a rarity to see this opera nowadays, yet given its duration (hardly 30 minutes) and sharp message of good over evil, there are things to learn and cherish about this historical piece.

I had the pleasure of seeing Brundibár performed live by children of the Abridged Opera Company. The company, originally from Canada, has been touring, showcasing the tale of a brother and sister Pepíček and Aninku. The story watches them agonise over the health of their mother. They decide to sing for money so they can buy milk for her, yet a greedy organ grinder Brundibár chases them away.

At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in Paradise in Augustines Church, Tracey B. Atin’s stage was brightly lit with enthusiastic children ready to sing and show the goodness of Hans Krasa's innocent story-telling. Yet there was a subtle and sinister tone to the music, which had you thinking innocence doesn’t prevail after all.

Sung in English, the Children were dressed as if they were animated characters from a folk tale. The setting was a quaint little village filled with helpful animals including a cat, dog, and courageous sparrow. These three animals assist the siblings in scaring away Brundibár .

The scenes flowed excellently together, and the children were a joy to watch. Robert Godden looked villainous as one would expect from a pantomime as the evil organ grinder. Pianist Joanna Shultz and Trevor Pittman, on the clarinet, revealed the intricate layers and multiple meanings in Krasa’s composition. And Erin Armstrong showed respect for the music and gave the children the extra push to perform as best as they could, to which they charmed and showed much enjoyment in.

Productions like these, invented by fringe-like companies such as Abridged Opera, are a great place to restore knowledge for audiences of lost histories with personal voices and spectacular music. It is also a great place for little ones to start out on the stage and become fully engrossed with opera.

To find out more about Abridged Opera Company, please click here for their website. 

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

#edfringe2016: Theatre Témoin - The Marked ★★★★

The Marked caught me off guard. I knew it was a puppets show, but it was only until after I saw it that I realised that it had a special message about child abuse and alcoholism. Theatre Témoin has worked together with Everyday Theatre Cheltenham to raise social issues in an inventively raw way.  Its masks, designed by Grafted Cede Theatre, may be grotesque, yet their eyes and expressions are completely human.
Set in London’s groggy back streets and alleyways, Jack sleeps rough and sees demons whenever there’s a bottle of alcohol in front of his eyes. Theatre Témoin creates dramatic imagery of Jack’s horrific past through a puppet-made mother with blood flowing through her eyes and long spider-like arms whenever she takes to the drink.

There’s loud noises (you might want to cover your ears), and strobe lights in violent domestic scenes shown through neat and sharp puppetry work. The most unsettling scene is seeing Jack’s mother break a bottle and stab Jack, the little puppet boy, on the neck. Yet there’s a tiny bit of humour with talking Pigeon puppets, some that come in human-size as Jack’s company on the lonely streets. 

Not everything seems to make sense in The Marked, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The moral of the story is clear - drink responsibly, especially if you have children, but also remember that children soak things up fast from a very young age, which eventually creeps up with them later on in their adult life. 

Director Aillin Conant gives us a lesson worth remembering, and its cast shake and move on the stage with energy and dynamism. Extraordinary performances are worth naming here. Dorie Kinnear plays the pregnant girlfriend who hides away  in squatting areas with her abusive boyfriend, played by Tom Stacy. Bradley Thompson is a vital force performing the role of abused victim Jack. His character is much to sympathise with, and he cleverly captures the soul of a boy seeking his mother’s love. 

In The Marked, the imagination is there to raise these issues to a broader audience. For topics that can often be difficult to discuss, Theatre Témoin breaks the foil and allows its audiences to have a larger debate about it. 

This show has ended at the Edinburgh Fringe. More information about Theatre Témoin can be found here. They are showing The Marked in London, Cheltenham and throughout the UK until Spring 2017. Click here for more information. 

#edfringe2016: Manual Cinema - Ada/Ava ★★★★

 Lizi Breit (Ava) and Julia Vaarsdale Miller (Ada)
Ada/Ava by Manual Cinema is a quirky presentation of shadow puppetry and emotional sentimentality, and there’s no hiding from its creators; they reveal the creative process live to the audience as it happens. Manual Cinema takes you on a surreal journey of two elderly twins, close as best friends, ever since childhood, until one of the sisters dies.

It is the sad realisation that Ada and Ava are no longer together, which devastates and resonates the most with this show, which Manual Cinema captures beautifully through its touching narrative and unique artistry. 

Directors Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman, Julia Vanarsdale Miller (who also performs as Ada) and Kyle Vegter have been successful in North America and won an award in 2014 at the Tehran International Festival. They made their European debut at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe at the Underbelly, which had many audience members give the theatre company a standing ovation on the day I attended. 

The craftsmanship takes place on simple projectors with ready-made images for projecting onto a large white screen. Below Lizi Breit (Ava) and Julia Vaarsdale Miller (Ada) mill around, creating the story of the sisters with various masks, hair buns and old granny clothes to match. 

Ready-to-use cut-outs and stencils are carefully placed to show the audience an animated tale of life, death, and memory. Flying back to their youth, the twins are shown playing fondly together in the sea, watching their feet catch the splashes of waves, yet melancholy arises when the dead sister becomes a skeleton - a fear the other sister doesn’t want to accept. 

Musicians Maren Celest, Michael Hilger, Kyle Vegter and Alex Ellsworth play a huge part of the show by creating the solemn, atmospheric music with a guitar, Rhodes piano, cello, clarinet, synthesizer and live sound effects. This emotional tale can be dramatic and deeply philosophical. One may feel the need to call a loved one immediately after seeing this. 

Friday, 26 August 2016

#edfringe2016: Opera Bohemia - La Traviata ★★★★★

La Traviata is Opera Bohemia’s seventh production and for the first time they are performing a work by Verdi. The independent opera company has been touring around Scotland ever since July and last night they performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in St Cuthbert’s Church.

There’s no denying the vitality of music in La Traviata – based on the story that has inspired films including Pretty Woman and Moulin Rouge - which explains why the venue had packed out. Music Director Alistair Diggs has a way of conducting, which is almost like a performance in itself. He gave clear instructions where the ensemble of musicians followed, giving a refined performance and gravitating the music towards a more poetic and highly structured tone. The pace was neither fussy or rushed.

Catriona Clark is a starry diva as Violetta - the courtesan who dies of consumption. Clark is a vocal lecturer and consultant, outside of her opera singing, which speaks volumes about her own abilities, which is supremely impressive. Her ability to move up and down scales with little effort, or at least what seems like little effort, is astounding. Her performance of sempre libera was thrilling and had audiences gleefully bouncing to and fro in their seats. She also engages with the text and presents an excellent understanding of Violetta's disposition, making her performance a memorable one I'd happily see again.

Together with Alfredo, performed by Thomas Kinch, they convince the audience of a true romance. His characterisation is confident and fresh, and he sings with clear Italian and warmth to suit. Aaron McAuley as Giorgio Germont combines all those anti-hero characteristics one would expect from a selfish father. Yet McAuley pays special attention to Germont’s better qualities in the last few acts. His voice is also rich and his duets with Clark in act II are pivotal.  

This La Traviata sparkles with great voices, sentimentality, and thoughtfulness.  Even the detailed staging by Director Doughlas Nairne, is carefully managed, which changes in each act. It seems as if Opera Bohemia has covered every corner of their production, and what was performed in a small church seems as rich as an opera staged in a grand opera house. 

#edfringe2016: DugOut Theatre - Swanson ★★★★★

Imagine being stuck in the middle of the sea in a pedalo with a bunch of strangers with clashing personalities. The world has ended, there’s no way out of the flood, all you see is endless water and you’re left playing boring games like I spy or never have I ever. Not to mention you’re stuck paddling with a toff, vegan hippy, competitive fitness freak and a, somewhat, know-it-all. Well, imagine no more as Tom Black and Sadie Spencer’s have already written a hilarious play that’s currently showing at the Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33). 

DugOut Theatre’s Swansong is a bizarre concoction of a cappella singing, swan impersonations and cutting comedy. Watch as these four characters argue, sing and giggle over their post-apocalyptic mess. After carnivorously killing a passing swan, of which the vegan hippy enjoyed devouring, they decide to become new world warriors in hope of rebuilding the next generation. It’s a comical response to first world problems. 

They use a notebook as a place to list things they miss, such as chips and mayo, Provence and moon cups, and write down stories for the new generation. Sadly, the last page is limited down to either Bruce Willis or a poem about plums in your icebox.

Throughout the performance, the foursome sings calming ritual songs with the lyrics ‘Serene swan, beautiful swan…’ which only enhances the founders of the new world story. Ed Macarthur, Tom Black, Nina Shenkman and Charlotte Merriam are remarkable performers, and really know how to add extra punch to Black and Spencer’s words. George Chilcott's direction makes this an original and authentic show, totally worth running to see on the last days of the Edinburgh Fringe festival. 

Swansong runs at the Pleasance Theatre at 5pm until 29 August (not 16). Click here to purchase tickets. Click here for more information about DugOut Theatre.