At the Fringe I: Hip-hop circus and anti-Brexit monologues

Death-defying acrobatics. Creepy immersive horror theatre. An anti-Brexit one-woman show. Where else could this be other than the Edinburgh Fringe? Isabelle Dupuy brings us the first of three roundups, carefully selecting a handful of must-see shows from the 966 on offer at the Fringe this year.

Margo: Half Woman, Half Beast

Photo courtesy of Cheyne Productions

Cabaret show Margo: Half Woman, Half Beast is a wonderful tribute to Weimar Berlin, written and performed by opera singer Melinda Hughes.  It’s a morning after, sometime in 1932, and actress and diva Margo Lion is chasing her hangover with a leftover cocktail on her boudoir table while the Nazis are moving in.

Inspired by true events, Hughes wants to promote a different kind of cabaret show in the UK. Margo is different through its subtlety, intelligence and focus on good (not funny) music.  With Michael Roulston on the piano and Alana Dawes on the double bass, Hughes takes us step by step through the dismantling of Turkish bisexual immigrant Margo’s world.

Alongside classic Weimar pieces such as ‘I Am a Vamp’ by Mischa Spoliansky, Hughes sings her own compositions, written with pianist Jeremy Limb, and the flow between the period and contemporary pieces is seamless.  Hughes and Limb’s ‘I Can’t Love’, about Margo’s tortured relationship with her Jewish lyricist husband Marcellus, rang so piercingly true it stayed with me long after the shocking end of the show.

There are no more performances of Margo: Half Woman, Half Beast at the Fringe.


Fear Itself

Photo courtesy of Danse Macabre Productions

On the other side of the Fringe, an interesting experiment in horror theatre is taking place.  Danse Macabre’s Fear Itself begins as a recorded presentation for a new self-help book about conquering fear.  The author, the recently divorced Dr Amanda Greenwood, is confident, free, reckless even, as she gives the finger and rolls her eyes at her ex who’s watching helplessly from his vantage point behind the camera.

Natalie Dawson has us convinced as she proceeds to shed layer after layer of Amanda’s sanity, until we are confused about what is real and what is inside Amanda’s mind.  Dawson’s Dr Greenwood keeps her scientific voice booming with authority as she takes us through increasingly bizarre and gruesome childhood terrors.  Or is it her research into real-life monstrous crimes?

They say the one fear we cannot conquer is the fear of what we have done.  Fear Itself hints at this conclusion, as we leave Dr Greenwood screaming on the floor. Has she really murdered her ex? We will never know, because at that point we are escorted out of the theatre.

Short form horror shows like Black Mirror and its predecessor The Twilight Zone rely on their ability to trick the audience into believing one story while something completely different is going on. The end is important because that is when the two strands come together and the truth is revealed. Fear Itself has great potential, but to create and maintain the surprise and shock inherent in a good horror show with only one performer was always going to be difficult. As it is, the show ends too abruptly.

There are no more performances of Fear Itself at the Fringe.


Universoul Circus: Hip Hop Under the Big Top

Photo: Boon Vong

Founded by African American Cedric Walker, Universoul is a circus with an emphasis on Afro-Caribbean talent and culture. The show is guaranteed to bring the heat of the Caribbean into the tent – no matter what the Edinburgh weather decides to do outside.

Since its first performance in an Atlanta parking lot in 1994, Universoul Circus has performed over 14,000 times to an audience of over 25 million people.  The founder’s ethos – “everyone belongs” – is all over the show, from the range of talents, to the breath of music and dance on show and the range of audience interaction.  We are given a hip hop dance lesson, we throw giant balloons, we lip-sync and, most of all, we gasp at the amazing acts.

Universoul Circus: Hip Hop under the Big Top will play until 25 August at Underbelly’s Circus Hub on the Meadows.


Diary of an Expat

Photo courstesy of The Other Richard

Up in a dark tower in Cowgate, a young Italian is going from being an EU expat to a more uncertain future as an immigrant in post-Brexit Britain.  Cecilia Gragnani, a graduate of the Drama Centre whose inspiration is 1950s’ Italian comedian Franca Valeri has written her own comedy chronicling the adventures of Chichilia in London. We follow her from her decision to pursue the “European Dream” to her arrival in the capital and her first job in the service industry. She makes friends with Ahmed, who wants to live with her to get papers, and finally decodes what the English mean by “lovely”.

London speaks to Chichilia through a voice over by Steve Wickenden, who by turns rebukes and reassures her.  In a moment of serious doubt, he reminds her that the city doesn’t “turn anyone away” – and tells her where to find a good sausage roll.

After a few years of adapting in London, Cecilia goes back to Italy and finds that she is different.  Her family and friends see the change too.  On the plane back, an Italian woman thinks she is British and compliments her on her good Italian.  It is a brilliant scene that illustrates the nightmare of every immigrant.  The moment when one is in limbo, neither fully integrated in the new country nor at home in their native land.

As Diary of an Expat bravely charges on, Chichilia doesn’t let the identity question stop her.  She meets a good Englishman, they move in together.  Her Italian family wring their hands at her fate, but Chichilia recognizes that it was her choice to leave Italy.  She wanted to make something of herself. London’s the place in Europe for that.

Writer and actress Cecilia Gragnani is a staunch European and wants future generations to enjoy the privileges that growing up in the EU gave her.  She credits the Erasmus pan-EU student exchange program more than any Italian school with broadening her horizons and her ambitions.  She is determined to fight for the European project, not just in the UK but in Italy as well.

The Brexit vote cuts deep into Chichilia.  It feels personal.  She doesn’t understand.  She has worked jobs British people do not want to do. She has paid taxes.  She has worked hard and she’s earned her place in Britain – and she won’t give it up easily. The last scene of Diary of an Expat is of Chichilia pledging allegiance after jumping through all the hoops and paying through the nose for a British passport.

She’s a British citizen now.  The voice-over compliments her and starts booming ‘God Save the Queen’. Chichilia puts a hand to her heart.  Not before placing a European flag on it first though.

Diary of an Expat will play until 26 August at Underbelly, Cowgate.

Litro in New York: Cabaret at Studio 54

Alan Cumming as the Emcee in the 1998 version of Cabaret, which he now revives at Studio 54.
Alan Cumming as the Emcee in the 1998 version of Cabaret, which he now revives at Studio 54.

Life is anything but a cabaret in the bleak days of late Weimar Berlin. The girls may be beautiful; the Emcees may be here to serve; troubles may be ostensibly checked at the door – but in Sam Mendes’ revival of his 1998 interpretation of the 1966 Kander and Ebb classic, the illusory nature of the pleasures of the Kit Kat Club has never been more clear. The Kit Kat girls are – though lovely – gaunt and sunken-cheeked; as the Nazis rise to power over the course of the musical, they don black wigs to become eerily more similar, spectral reminders of the chilling homogeneity to come.

Headlining the whole affair is Alan Cumming as the Emcee (reprising his 1998 performance) – a role so pitch-perfect for Cumming that it almost, counterintuitively, feels like it’s being played safe. Cumming is a consummate performer (though he’s chewing the scenery rather less vociferously than in his excellent 2013 one-man Macbeth, perhaps my favourite Broadway show of last year): equal parts showman and diva, but – surprisingly for Cumming – his eagerness to shock and awe (not to mention seduce) his audience into submission feels tame, if somewhat vulgar. Cumming knows what works (and work it nearly always does), but – with the exception of the haunting “I Don’t Care Much” – his performance can feel by-the-numbers. The Emcee’s response to the Nazis, furthermore, tends less towards black humor than frivolity: the odd Hitler impersonation falls flat, and the final image of Act I – a swastika carved into the Emcee’s bare buttocks – feels less transgressive than cowardly, as if Mendes and company have little faith in the swastika’s power to shock on its own.

That said, however, the production overall is fantastic: grounded in part in the revelatory performance of Michelle Williams as Sally Bowles. Portrayed as an overgrown child tap-dancing in her mother’s clothes (a motif made clear early on with an innovative interpretation of “Don’t Tell Mama”, in which Williams kicks her heels from an oversized chair), Williams’ Bowles is hyperactive, fidgety, and heartbreakingly insecure: less Liza Minelli than Holly Golightly. It’s difficult to overshadow Cumming, but Williams manages it: her final, achingly simplistic delivery of “Cabaret” is far more compelling than the razzle-dazzle that’s come before; her final breakdown is among the best performances I’ve seen on any stage on either side of the Atlantic.

Such a childlike interpretation of Bowles, along with emphasis on her lover Cliff’s bisexuality, makes for an odd central romantic pairing. The first act seems to set Sally’s affections for Cliff as so completely unrequited (“Are you a homosexual?” she asks him, at one point; he does not reply) that the revelation that he might be the father of her child seems almost ludicrous in context. Their relationship as it plays out – Sally and Cliff more as co-dependent friends more than lovers – is compelling, but this production could have fleshed out how, exactly, such friendship ends up in coitus.

Yet the lessened emphasis on the Cliff/Sally romance allows other pairings to shine: most notably that of the decidedly unglamorous, but utterly compelling relationship between tolerant landlady Frau Schneider and Jewish shopkeeper Herr Schultz (Linda Emond and Danny Burstein), whose relationship comes across as a rare moment of human connection in a world falling apart. So too the chilling figure of Fräulein Kost Kost (sung with gorgeous discordancy by Gayle Rankin): a prostitute for whom Nazism represents order in a life of chaos. While Sally’s presence is overwhelming – by the sheer force of Williams’ charisma – Williams is a generous performer, and ultimately we feel that Cabaret’s tragedy is not merely the decline of Sally Bowles, but that of her whole world.

Gorgeously designed, slickly lit, and, despite a few missteps, stunningly directed – the final reprise of “Wilkommen”, in which Cumming gleefully announces a now-empty orchestra, is perhaps the play’s most devastating moment – this cynical Cabaret may not offer the warmest wilkommen, but it will stay with you long after you leave.

Cabaret continues at Studio 54 until July 11th. See here for more information.