Nostalgia, Politics, and Drums: Edinburgh - A Week in Review

Education, Education, Education

The Wardrobe Ensemble, who have previously looked at relationships and sex in the 1970s and how it still relates to today have in their latest endeavour jumped forward a couple of decades to 1997. The setting is a local comprehensive school, looking at the staff and student relationships within the context of both Tony Blair’s recent election victory and the UK’s success that year in the Eurovision song contest.

The story is mostly told through the impressions of a German classroom assistant Tobias who is new to the School, exploring many of the issues and events that were topical in 1997, from New Labour to Tamagotchi’s. The cast play both students and teachers, which means some quick changes. The interweaving narratives are punctured with some humour, often relating to things that may strike the audience as relevant to the present. The characters of the teachers are particularly strong and distinctive, with attitudes to pedagogy that range from strict to naïve.

The stage is set with two large mobile doors that act as useful devices, effectively conveying the hectic nature of the average school and giving the impression of busyness without the need for huge numbers of actors.  Whenever the actors are in their student guises, their real life school photographs are projected onto the background. This seems to ground the audience in the real-life experiences of the actors as well as highlighting the formative influence this period had on them.

This play is enjoyable and well-paced. Its nostalgia might be both a strength and weakness, 90s kids will particularly enjoy seeing echoes of their own experiences but some bits may be lost on younger or older audiences. There are certainly enough of the former in Edinburgh to probably make this not much of an issue. 

Tago: Korean Drums II

The return of the Tago group, part of the ‘Korean Season’ at the Edinburgh fringe, offers a unique musical and dance spectacle for anyone looking for something a bit different. Using a variety of types and sizes of drum, as well as other traditional Korean instruments (and even one of their own creations) this show very much offers a ‘spectacle’ to those who wish to see and experience other cultures. 

The larger expertly choreographed routines are cleverly intersected with more playful solos. The show carefully avoids either being too kitsch or too serious and therefore provides an enjoyable experience for all, regardless of people’s awareness or interest in East Asian culture.  The costumes and way the performers interact add another element to the show; the small elements of audience encouragement feel natural and not forced and there are some pretty memorable pieces of headgear that will certainly stick in people’s minds. 

The sheer power and strength that is required for each of the routines is impressive enough in itself, but the way each one is timed and perfected demonstrates the amount of hard work that has gone into honing this act so as to make it seamless. Those who question how impressive someone on the drums can be should seriously consider seeing this show and it will appeal to anyone who has a passing interest in the history, culture, and style of the Far East. Although it is an hour long, the time passes very quickly with the rhythm of the drum.

Commons

A different although certainly a topical play considering the scandal that erupted over Keith Vaz last year, ‘Commons’ tells the story of a junior politician (Marcus) and his relationship with a rent boy (Sam). In this case, the politician decides to resign rather than stay on in parliament and is a Tory junior minister who has been using parliamentary funds on the hotels where they have been conducting the affair. The play starts with a ‘final’ visit to see Sam. The story goes back and forth between their past relationship, explaining how it developed, and the present day where they are both contemplating their futures.

The concept is strong even if the play doesn’t quite deliver at times. Some questions seem left only half answered, particularly why Marcus felt driven to seek a rent boy in the first place. Part of the problem seems to be the way the play jumps about, which rather than strengthening the pacing actually ends up interrupting it, the order is therefore not always clear. The acting can seem a little stilted in places.

The staging is good, with the audience being seated around a bed that is supposed to represent the hotel room. This acts as the central focus for the various meetings between Marcus and Sam. The real innovation is the use of bright lights to bring in the other two members of the cast who represent all the other characters. They sit in the audience and are at their strongest when representing news reporters or journalists, questioning Marcus as the scandal erupts.

This is a solid bit of drama with occasional comedic elements that lighten the rather heavy subject matter. If you are a fan of politics and current affairs this will be something you may enjoy if you have an afternoon to spare.

Des Kapital: Never Mind the Cossacks

A very unique one man show performed by ‘Des Kapital’ the supposed winner of ‘Gulag’s Got Talent’. Des is the fictional persona of Andy Thomas, a history teacher. The show is primarily a series of musical numbers, performed by Des, which tell the evolving story of the Soviet Union from its evolution to its collapse. I suspect there is no other show on the fringe where the audience can sing along to a song about Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands Campaign.

The real strength of ‘Never Mind the Cossacks’ is the whimsical yet creative nature of the songs, which are clearly the product of an awful lot of research and dedication. Cleverly taking popular songs by artists such as One Direction, Britney Spears and Madonna (e.g Like a Virgin = Virgin Lands Campaign) and reworking the lyrics to explain recent Soviet history.

Des himself is enthusiastic, perhaps a little too enthusiastic with the subject, bounding on stage in Soviet inspired dungarees with all the energy and character of a 1980s children’s television presenter. The patter is no doubt a product of Thomas’ time as a history teacher. His efforts to engage those present were, unfortunately, a little forced and would no doubt depend on the audience. His puns although designed to be poor did do a good job of keeping heavy subject matter light.

The main problem with the show as a concept is probably the fact that Des cannot sing very well (despite winning ‘Gulag’s Got Talent’) and therefore the songs can occasionally come across as bad karaoke. Now this should not matter, this show is after all designed to be quirky and about the subject, not the singing, however, if the songs were sung well I believe the gifted and imaginative lyrics would make this show truly great. All the ingredients are there, it just needs a five-year plan. 

Autopsy: The Soul of Richard Nixon

One of the free fringe shows that takes place in the basement of a café. This is a one man show by Steve Mclean who still admits it is a work in progress (he has been trying different formats for the shows). However, the quality of the work still shines through as Steve Mclean attempts to act as the soul of Richard Nixon, justifying his presidency and political career.

Early on Steve explains away the fact that Nixon is speaking as a ‘bald Englishman’ which eases the audience and allows them to suspend their disbelief. The monologue is very fluid and clearly the product of a good deal of research. As someone who holds a PhD in history, I perhaps was not the best test case for the show. Luckily the walls were covered with several photos of the various political figures that Nixon interacted with over his long career (figures like Barry Goldwater and George Wallace) allowing Steve to paint the picture using visual aids for even those whose memory or knowledge may be sketchy.

The main strength of the piece is its originality and interpretation of Nixon himself as well as his actions. Unusually for a political piece at the fringe, it is extremely balanced, in the version I saw Nixon explains his interest and formation of many of the contemporary environmental agencies, as well as his often more moderate approach, particularly when compared to what followed in the Republican Party under Reagan and Bush. This is refreshing and keeps you interested, as the audience is presented very much with a man, flawed for sure, but not a corrupt would-be despot.

This is well worth a watch and with some polishing will be a great show. Taking its cue from other historical and political one man shows, ‘The Soul of Richard Nixon’ could probably benefit from a question and answer session, as Nixon is truly judged for his actions by the audience as well as allowing for clarification on the history. Steve Mclean certainly seems to have the knowledge to be able to answer even the most well-informed inquisitor.

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