wed 15/08/2018

Edinburgh Festival 2018 reviews: Coriolanus Vanishes / Check Up: Our NHS at 70 / A Sockful of Custard | reviews, news & interviews

Edinburgh Festival 2018 reviews: Coriolanus Vanishes / Check Up: Our NHS at 70 / A Sockful of Custard

Edinburgh Festival 2018 reviews: Coriolanus Vanishes / Check Up: Our NHS at 70 / A Sockful of Custard

Cycles of abuse, a health service polemic and a celebration of silliness

Saturated in colour: Irene Allan in the visually stunning Coriolanus Vanishes at the Traverse TheatreTommy Ga-Ken Wan

 

Coriolanus Vanishes ★★★★ 

Writer and director David Leddy was himself the original solo performer in his Coriolanus Vanishes when it premiered in Glasgow in 2017. But in this powerful, visually stunning outing as part of the Traverse’s very strong festival programme this year, its actor is Irene Allan. It’s a change of gender that casts the work in an entirely new light (and in fact, you can’t help but imagine Leddy’s fragmented monologue from a male perspective), but one that simultaneously changes nothing.

As with so much of his work, Leddy’s Coriolanus Vanishes dovetails the personal and the global, the intimate and the political. It's the switchback, shape-shifting story of the solitary Chris, awaiting trial for the deaths of three people. This is the same Chris who left her wife and recently adopted son for a man, finding almost spiritual fulfilment in the domination of a stronger partner during sex, and who sees little reason to apologise for her job facilitating UK arms deals with the seemingly limitlessly powerful Saudi Arabia.

Leddy’s argument is that abuse inevitably leads to more abuse, whether at the domestic or the diplomatic level, and though it takes some time for the contrasing strands of his narrative to weave together, when they do it’s hugely powerful. Allan delivers the role with wonderful restraint and an increasingly chilling focus, and Becky Minto’s remarkable stage design – all saturated washes of colour and intense spotlights, courtesy of lighting designer Nich Smith – gives the show a superbly distancing, artificial feel, one emphasised by the subtly contrasting sound textures from its variety of microphones and the clicks and whirrs of Danny Krass's sound design. It’s a thoughtful, slow-burn piece, but one that’s all-consuming in its cumulative power.

Mark ThomasCheck Up: Our NHS at 70 ★★★★

Comedian, activist and – increasingly – Fringe regular Mark Thomas’s deft theatre show on the NHS is – well, pretty much what you might expect from a show by Mark Thomas on the NHS. Celebratory of its achievements and underlying philosophy; realistic about its shortcomings; angry about its detractors in successive recent governments, both Tory and Labour.

While it might not exactly shock or surprise, Check Up: Our NHS at 70 is a remarkably fluent, unsentimental, human piece of theatre, very funny one moment (Thomas has some killer one-liners), fury-inducing the next. And it’s a show that he's clearly researched in meticulous detail. He speaks to nurses and surgeons on the front line, whose deadpan wit he conveys in a series of intentionally hit-and-miss impersonations (he warns a partly Scottish audience he’s useless at a Fife accent). He also interviews influential decision makers behind the scenes, none of whom contradict his conclusions that we expect northern European standards of care on a US-level tax system, and that the internal market makeover has been a costly disaster.

But behind the politics and the polemics, Thomas is excellent at digging into personal stories: the nurse who abseiled to raise money for soft toys for her dementia unit; the decades-long relationships renal unit staff build with their returning patients. Nicolas Kent’s direction is brisk and vivid, providing a clear and compelling framework for Thomas’s insights.

Check Up is a celebration and a staunch defence of one of the nation’s defining institutions (and yes, Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympic opening ceremony gets a rightful nod). But it’s also a passionate, deeply moving tale of courage, resilience and human compassion in ever more challenging circumstances – and, most importantly, a hopeful one.

A Sockful of Custard ★★★★

Tucked away in a cabaret bar in the Pleasance Dome, there’s a quietly anarchic show about British comedy maverick Spike Milligan – its title is just one of the increasingly bizarre sound effect requirements he made during his time with the BBC.

And while this quirky two-hander from brilliant Milligan impersonator and actor Jeremy Stockwell and writer/director Chris Larner (pictured above) actually treads a fairly familiar biographical path, it does it with such freshness, spontaneity and barely controlled chaos that A Sockful of Custard becomes itself a celebration of silliness, a reminder of the childlike joys of absurdity.

Stockwell is indeed a childlike presence as Milligan himself, stressing the man’s wide-eyed wonder at the contradictions and pretensions of the world, while not shying away from the curmudgeonly irritation that increasingly became a part of Milligan’s personality. He stays in character as Spike throughout the show, Larner (as himself) informs us during one of his increasingly frequent directorial interjections – leading, perhaps somewhat predictably, to Stockwell/Milligan’s annoyance that the show itself risks turning into nothing more than a dry biography.

It’s a warm-hearted creation, full of gentle fun and flippant idiocy, and suitable for Milligan aficionados and the uninitiated alike. And it succeeds in conveying Milligan’s errant genius, not in hagiography, nor in listing the countless comedians he’s influenced, but in demonstrating and encapsulating our profound human need for nonsense.

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