Sunday 13 August 2023

Fringe: Otto & Astrid - Fielding Edlow - Lena

There are more than 3,500 shows playing at the Edinburgh Fringe in more than 300 venues around the city, most of which are created in unexpected spaces. The vibe here is electrical, as the action continues 24 hours a day with lively crowds on the lookout for comedy, theatre, music and art. Posters on every surface advertise these shows, and far too many of them look tempting. Of course, it's impossible to do more than scratch the surface...

Otto & Astrid’s Joint Solo Project ★★★★★
with Daniel Tobias, Clare Bartholomew
Assembly George Square Gardens, Piccolo • Fringe, Aug.23

Sibling rivalry derails a rock concert in this fiendishly smart comedy piece, as the beloved brother-sister duo returns for two separate solo performances. At the same time. It's written and played with precision around a series of catchy pastiche songs that become instant earworms, enticing the audience to get involved with call-and-response choruses. Otto and Astrid are hugely endearing characters, stars of the band Die Roten Punkte. But after failing to agree on whose songs should go on their new album, they're taking a break and performing solo tonight. And as much as they try not to share a stage tonight, they simply can't escape it.

The show opens on Otto's solo spotlight. He's cuddly and emotive, singing an homage to Iggy Pop called I Wanna Be Your Kitten, and clearly missing his sister. Then in the middle of a song, Astrid makes her immaculately timed catastrophic entrance, a walking disruption who is loveable in very different ways. Sarcastic and messy, she pushes Otto into a tug of war of wills. And the nastier she gets, the funnier it is, because it's also clear that deep underneath she wants to give Otto a hug as much as he wants to hug her (and everyone else). Without back-up bandmates, they have no choice but to help each other on-stage, Astrid on drums and Otto on guitar, forcing the audience to pick sides.

Otto's Depeche Mode-style song laments their parents being eaten by a lion when they were kids (Astrid insists they were run over by a train). Then Astrid sings a punk anthem about girl power, which Otto can't help mansplaining. Astrid gets the audience chanting along to Tasty Snack, then bums us out with a hilariously mopey dirge before the jubilant Party Explosion finale. The show is a riot of fabulous visual sight gags, sharply witty banter and big musical beats, but it's the underlying connection between Otto and Astrid, and the fully committed performances by Tobias and Bartholomew, that turn the entire audience into die-hard fans.

For details, OTTO & ASTRID >

photos by Mark Turner & Matt Duboff • 13.Aug.23

Gaslighting Is My Love Language ★★★
Fielding Edlow
Just the Tonic Meeting Room, Grassmarket Centre • Fringe, Aug.23

An abrasive delivery both pushes and pulls the audience throughout Edlow's stand-up set, which ricochets through a range of raucous topics that centre around her toxic relationship with ex-husband Larry. She describes him in wholly unflattering terms, taking cheap shots at his appearance, age and taste ("watching him get undressed is like skinning a salmon"), but also revealing some lingering affection. Her quick-fire punchlines involve abstract metaphors that usually have specifically American cultural references, which are largely lost on an Edinburgh audience. This makes it perhaps a bit difficult to engage with her, but she keeps working it, and her unapologetic approach and self-deprecating wit win us over.

The set is structured around the idea of gaslighting, mainly relaying a number of anecdotes about Larry and others she has encountered over the years. "I'm not changing any names," she notes, "so come and find me!" There are also personal experiences as an actress struggling to interact around celebrities, such as a one-scene role playing a stenographer in Behind the Candelabra. She also coaxes an audience member to re-enact a key moment from the classic 1944 film Gaslight, taking the Charles Boyer role herself opposite a towering hunk as Ingrid Bergman. And she gleefully flirts with the audience.

There are funny riffs on the benefits of having relatively no success in her career. "I don't need concealer," she says, "because I'm not tired." And she tells several stories from her marriage that are as nasty about herself as they are about Larry. All of this creates a strong narrative structure that keeps us engaged, even if it's essentially the sad story of a bad breakup, punctuated by quick-fire punchlines. And she knows why she does this: "I don't light myself on fire to keep you warm."

For details, FIELDING EDLOW >

photos by Troy Conrad & Benjamin Ealovega • 12.Aug.23

Lena ★★★★
by Tim Withnall
director Paul Hendy
with Erin Armstrong, Jon Culshaw, Alan McHugh, Julie Coombe, Helen Logan
Assembly George Square, Gordon Aikman Theatre • Fringe, Aug.23

Inventively staged as a biographical doc covering three decades in the life of a real-life child star, this 90-minute drama is heartfelt and very moving. It's hardly covering new ground, and even directly makes reference to its two key touchstones, Judy Garland and Karen Carpenter. But that doesn't make it any less wrenching, especially with a terrific cast that delivers expressive performances, anchored by the gifted Armstrong in the title role as Lena Zavaroni.

Narrated by Hughie Green (Culshaw), host of the TV competition show Opportunity Knocks, the show traces Lena's early life with her musical parents Victor and Hilda (McHugh and Coombe, both excellent) on Scotland's Isle of Bute before being discovered by a record producer in 1973 at age 9 and being whisked off to London to live with shark-like manager Dorothy (Logan). Her sweet voice ("clear as a Highland spring") and adorable youthfulness combine to make her a star, as Dorothy coaches her on etiquette and staying slim. But Lena can't escape that mindset, and anorexia begins to take its horrible toll on her life and career. She returns to her parents to recover, and attempts a comeback in the late '70s, but the family faces a series of tragedies.

Lena's heartbreaking story is well-known in Britain, and everyone will resonate with the echoes of other shining stars who burned out far too early. The show is very cleverly staged, with vivid sets, inventive lighting and a series of big musical numbers that are both entertaining and pointedly plot-driving. These allow the gifted Armstrong to display both a range of acting beats and a wide variety of musical styles, from Lena's signature tune Ma! (He's Making Eyes at Me) to a gorgeous final ballad about how the search for fame goes nowhere. Which of course brings additional meaning in today's influencer era.

For details, LENA >

photo by Ian Watson • 13.Aug.23

Full information at EDINBURGH FRINGE >

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