London calling

12 August 2017

9:00 AM

12 August 2017

9:00 AM

What is the Edinburgh Fringe? It’s a sabbatical, a pit stop, a pause-and-check-the-map opportunity for actors who don’t quite know where to go next. Alison Skilbeck has written a ‘serio-comic celebration’ of Shakespeare and her performance attracts a decent crowd for a show that starts at noon. She plays a fruity-voiced thesp, Artemis Turret, who delivers lectures about the Bard’s older females to groups of layabout pensioners gathered in a scout hut. It’s pure Joyce Grenfell. Good fun, too, but without much potential beyond the fringe.

Dominic Holland’s show, Eclipsed, is about his life as a fallen comedy god. In the 1990s he was on telly all the time and he accepted the royal command to perform at Prince Charles’s 50th birthday party. Now 50 himself, Holland is treading water. Or, as he puts it, ‘I’m at the free fringe doing a show which I introduce with the words, “Good afternoon”.’ The complication is that Holland’s son, Tom, has overtaken his dad and is busy making movies. He’s Spider-Man. Holland offers a smart and witty guide to the pitfalls of having a superstar in the family.

Trumpageddon has a great title and a sensational opening. Play-goers are ushered into their seats by a twitchy secret service agent in a menacing black suit. Outside a chopper approaches, thud-thud-thud. The chopper lands. A door swings open. Lights blaze. Smoke swirls. Chords of stirring music soar. And here comes the president, whooping and waving at the audience with contemptuous vanity. He puffs out his chest and greets members of the crowd with handshakes and comments, insulting the men and peering down the women’s cleavages. And he’s hilarious, for a few minutes, but this imposture quickly palls. The show seems careless and unloved. Trump’s costume is a mess. His face is a fat oval, bearing a slather of tangerine slap that trickles down the sinews of his neck. His blonde hair is incorrectly swept back from the forehead, not forward from the crown. His shiny suit is an Oxfam reject and his nylon tie looks flammable. This isn’t the president but a shambolic puppet sent forth to elicit cackles of scorn from the discontented. The impersonator, Simon Jay, has some decent lines (‘Angela Merkel looks like a boiled egg with a Beatles haircut’), but the script is thin and he falls back on cruel Melania jibes and an improvised press conference. The audience are invited to fling challenges at him. ‘Why is the president such a jerk?’, asked an angry Trot who probably expected the crowd to leap to their feet cheering their approval. But a silence fell. ‘That’s a very disrespectful question,’ said Trump in his hurt whisper. More silence followed. It was a hard production to get a handle on. What was this? A cheesy bit of political slapstick or a show trial whose verdict had been decided in advance? Neither would be satisfactory. The problem is the president himself. Trump eludes satire because he outpaces the craziest imaginings of his satirists.

Not About Heroes traces the relationship between Siegfried Sassoon and his protégé Wilfred Owen. We meet the master, Sassoon, as he greets a nervous and unpublished poet seeking an autograph. Sassoon reads Owen’s early scribbles and encourages him to ‘sweat’ over his poetry. The play is static and stagey at first but it develops into a riveting portrait of literary mentorship. The finest scene shows Sassoon editing and amending Owen’s draft poem, ‘To Dead Youth’, and turning it into a masterpiece, ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’.

Education, Education, Education is a slice of dramatic mayhem that wants to be a pantomime, a comedy and a documentary all at once. We’re in a bog-standard comp on the morning of Blair’s victory, 2 May 1997, and the staff are looking forward to a huge injection of cash from their New Labour saviours. Meanwhile they’ve got a school to run. Simmering resentments boil over at lunchtime. A troubled teenager stages a sit-in. A drama teacher gets punched in the gob. A food-fight erupts in the corridors and the violence spills over into the staff room. The escalating chaos is brilliantly handled and the characters are superbly drawn. The head is a dippy idealistic Welshman struggling to suppress his loathing for his control-freak deputy. The pompous history teacher tries but fails to overcome the puffery of his office. The head of English is a golden-hearted sweetie who can’t stop her pupils running wild during lessons. A hilariously camp German trainee offers wry comments on Cool Britannia. And there’s a lonely sports master who confiscates a Tamagotchi (a portable electronic pet) only to become obsessed with its feeding and sleeping habits. I was riveted by this show. So was the audience. And, like much of the Fringe, it’s in the wrong place. It belongs in London.

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