Shower Thoughts: The Show We’re Still Talking About

Charlie Norton speaks to the cast and crew behind this overwhelming student success at the Fringe 2018.

 

In typical student fashion, composer Lavie Rabinovitz effusively tells me, ‘Shower Thoughts’ was a brainchild of the small hours: ‘it all started with a message at two or three in the morning’. The idea was to explore the bathroom as a private place for personal revelations, librettist Ryan Hay explains, ‘so we put together a list of all the things that might happen in the bathroom and chose the ones we found interesting’.

 

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‘Shower Thoughts’ follows five university flatmates as they reflect on university life in private and shared moments in their ‘grotty’ student bathroom. The song-cycle explores a breadth of contemporary issues – from mental illness to body hair – whilst sustaining the energy of a real student house through comic musical exchanges between the friends.

 

Though the setting is unique, Rabinovitz is keenly aware that the flat-share premise is familiar: ‘We talked extensively about the flat dynamics because we were really petrified of rewriting Friends. We wanted to write real people.’ To this end, perhaps riskily, the roles were cast before the piece was finished and the actors’ real-life personalities used as inspiration. This explains Iona Smith’s effortless charisma as Flick, the joker of the bunch. Meanwhile, Stephanie Herron’s incredibly poignant performance as Sophie is somewhat explained by her co-writing of the powerful and nuanced solo about eating disorder which, she explains, ‘is authentic to my experiences’.

 

In Hay’s words, ‘it’s important to understand that you’re writing from a perspective but to feel empowered [by it].’ As students of St Andrews themselves, the cast and crew have an obvious proximity to the fictional environment. Amy Addinall’s set design has a self-professed ‘grotty’ aesthetic ‘just like everyone’s bathroom at Uni’, which hilariously lends itself to Rachel Brown’s drunken crouching over the toilet bowl as the unlucky-in-love Ang, as well as a Kate Nash-esque ditty about body hair and self-acceptance from Sara Pearce’s Eva.

 

But this is not to say the actors are playing themselves. In fact, I choke on my water in surprise when Connor Norris who plays Jonny, a young typically English man repressed by the social implications of masculinity, has a strong American accent. On top of this, Herron and Pearce describe some teething issues with their portrayal of a gay relationship.

 

Herron: Definitely, for a couple of rehearsals, we were having a hard time figuring out, er…

Hay: Logistics?

Jess Cooper (director): Haha! Yeah, we had to have a wee ‘logistics chat’.

Pearce: One day we did a run and then Jess took us aside and said ‘Guys, let’s talk about physical intimacy’.

Cooper: I’m a queer woman myself and for me it was just a relationship!

 

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Of her naturalistic directing, Cooper says the cast had to ‘work against the desire to “perform” the content, [so as] to make the audience feel like they were prying.’ For a cast of opera singers and musical theatre fanatics alike this apparently proved a challenge. The show involves no jazz hands and no dazzling choreography; rather the character development and the themes explored are at the centre of the piece. This placed some burden on the cast, Norris says: ‘I really wanted to make sure I did the issue justice.’ Yet it is this empathetic and thoughtful handling of contemporary issues which makes ‘Shower Thoughts’ so impactful.

 

Rabinovitz sums up the sentiment of the piece: ‘if you can express those emotions in the bathroom, why can’t you do so everywhere else – open the door!’ And, Hay tells me, the door is not closed on ‘Shower Thoughts’, with an upcoming run booked on home turf as well as an ambition for a national tour. Having seen the show myself I can confirm it is absolutely worth a watch, and I’m only more convinced of this having had the chance to speak to such a passionate group of creatives.

 


An Interview with Planet Caramel

By Charlie Norton

 

I’m approached in the noisy foyer of Buttermarket by a normified David Blair, transformed from alien comedian to down-to-earth nice-guy by the absence of the Planet Caramel costume of a pair of neon orange Mod glasses. When Alex Harwood and Richard Duffy, sporting a shock of mauve hair, sweep in together, the three avidly fill each other in on whatever has happened in the hours spent apart since their last show – I’m reluctant to disrupt the lively flow of chat between them.

 

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Can you tell me about early days of Planet Caramel?

Richard: We were all in the Edinburgh Revue at different times.

David: Then I wanted to form a group with Alex, and Richard was a necessary appendage.

Alex: And now we’re all best friends!

 

How did you choose the troupe name?

David: ‘Planet Caramel’ was chosen completely at random–

Richard: Then we decided it would be a good idea to have a bribe and managed to get hold of Tunnock’s, who give us 600 caramel wafers a year.

David: You know the worst thing about the wafers is that we’re the only show at the Fringe that gives them out and 10% of people go “Oh, have you not got Tunnock’s teacakes?” For f*ck’s sake guys, we’re not called Planet Teacake.

 

So, who decided on the fluorescent Mod glasses?

Richard: (to Alex) You’re essentially the aesthetics man.

Alex: Yeah – that was me! I was trying to get us a uniform for ages, and wanted us to be dressed as Cosmic Postmen…

David: Not a lot of Google results.

Alex: The glasses idea came from Devo, an Art Pop electronic band from the 80s, who wear these famous weird hats and look really bizarre. I imagined us doing the equivalent with glasses and it just worked.

Richard: We actually had a sexy photoshoot with the glasses and matching orange tutus.

 

Speaking of sexy, that word has been thrown about a lot in relation to your show…

David: I don’t know why, I don’t think of us as very sexy at all. Richard is another species.

Richard: Well, my flatmates overheard some Americans after a performance refer to me as ‘a tall glass of water’!

Alex: My boss’s mate fancies Richard too. There are definitely parts of the show where I feel sexy and then parts where I wish I was dead.

David: 1 minute of the former, 58 minutes of the latter. I’m not sexy… unless you like screaming and sweat. I actually sat down on the stage last night and left a puddle just from my own buttock sweat, which isn’t sexy, is it. Is it?

Alex: A puddle is just a spilt tall glass of water!

 

Have you thought about what Planet Caramel itself would be like if you ruled it?

Richard: Sticky.

David: I think it would be populated by nice boys just being friends. Girls would be allowed too.

 

So, you don’t have an agenda in particular?

David: I want to be nice, a lot of sketch groups aren’t nice, a lot of comedy isn’t nice.

Alex: Exactly. We don’t like doing dark edgy stuff for the sake of looking clever. The sketches are all ideas that have tickled us.

Richard: Comedy needn’t have a point; when it does it’s good. There’s a slight issue at the moment in that the shows we see promoted are often not the funniest but the most poignant or ‘significant’ shows.

David: (teasing) He’s getting defensive of us not getting shortlisted again.

Richard: I just think it’s strange that that’s almost a requirement of comedy now.

 

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An hour with Planet Caramel proves them to be a comedy trio worth supporting: Richard, David and Alex really are ‘nice guys doing a nice thing’, bringing sharp sketches that amuse and amaze for fun’s sake. After a successful run of Rotations in Flavour Space, they are sure to be back to the Fringe next year with another raucous and unmissable light-speed sketch-show.

 

 


Pomona: A Chat with the Directors

By Jessica Loram

 

Struck by the professionalism of HiveMCR’s production of Alistair McDowall’s 2014 psycho-dystopian thriller ‘Pomona’, I reached out to directors Kwame Owusu and Thomas Thacker to find out how such a polished student production came into being. At first, I was surprised to discover that Owusu and Thacker had not seen any previous productions of ‘Pomona’, instead staying “fervently distanced” from anything that might taint their “own digestion of the piece”. On reflection, though, this makes sense. Completely new to ‘Pomona’ myself, I had a hunch that their interpretation had come organically to Manchester University’s HiveMCR.
The team’s fresh engagement with the play manifests in excellent performances delivered by the entire cast. Thacker and Owusu tell me how “building up an extensive knowledge of the characters’ hopes, fears, past, projected future and relationship with others was absolutely paramount”. This considered approach is indeed what distinguishes ‘Pomona’ as a first rate student production. Ensuring that an entire cast sustain convincing character development is admittedly a tall order for a university group and, from my experience as a reviewer at the Fringe, is rarely achieved by amateur groups.

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HiveMCR are, however, successful in their endeavour, and the emotional landscape of ‘Pomona’ is thrilling. In spite of the narrative’s surreal backdrop, the real drama of the play lies in an inner human realm, and Thacker and Owusu explain to me how the cast deliberately looked “at the characters at their best and worst to get a perspective of where their emotional range began and ended”. There is no room for lukewarm efforts in HiveMCR’s work

 

Given the “character-driven” nature, the directors reason that “the drama exudes from the way the broken narrative interacts with its broken characters.” Compelling physical theatre allows the emotional suffering to bleed into the physical realm, too. An unbearable fight scene unravels between the endearing Charlie (Stoops) and Moe (Whitehouse). Finding myself genuinely wincing during the fight, I surprise myself by wanting to find out exactly how they choreographed such a stunning scene. Unsatisfied with their initial physical exercises, Stoops and Whitehouse turned to “how one truly conveys the horror of a bloody fight: the reactions”. A focus on reaction led the actors to “read articles that described the feeling of being stabbed as research and practiced breathing techniques to correctly correlate the characters’ inner panic with their severe pain”. The use of blackout snaps when their blows make contact emphasise “the way the actors vocalise and physicalize their characters’ pain when the lights snapped back on”. Such an attentive and creative approach certainly adds to the thrill of ‘Pomona’.

 

HiveMCR’s formidable artistic effort extends to the thinking behind the sparse set. Captivated by the cyclical nature of the text, Owusu and Thacker chose to capture this by having “a loop physically appear on stage, ensnaring the characters in a claustrophobic proximity”. A sense of entrapment is cemented further by the plot’s race against time. I learn from the directors that “the chalk circle at the centre of the stage also doubled as a clock, the creature Cthulhu marking the positioning of the scene preceding in the fractured chronology of the play”. Utterly absorbed in the psychological drama, I confess that I missed this detail, but my ignorance did not detract from my understanding of the narrative. If anything, therefore, this detail simply testifies to the diligence at work behind the scenes of HiveMCR’s ‘Pomona’. Moreover, the “purposefully simplistic” set conveys a “sense of loneliness in a city completely entrenched in an underlying moral sparsity.”

 

Speaking on behalf of the cast, Owusu and Thacker share that “the opportunity to form strong relationships with talented and endlessly kind people was what made the whole process worth it.” It sounds like the challenge of transporting a mattress across Manchester to Edinburgh and a “manic hunt for tofu/Quorn nuggets” only strengthened the group’s rapport. The play’s outstanding success is indicative of their stellar teamwork, and I’m sure would make Alistair McDowall (incidentally an alumnus of Manchester University) proud of what HiveMCR have created.


Don’t Say Cheese: The Oxford Imps on the show where you’re in charge

By Sally Christmas

 

Director Dan Squire and producer Megan Morgan talk us through the ins and outs of improvised comedy.

 

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Tell us a little bit about the Oxford Imps and what you do. 

D: The Imps are an improvised comedy troop based in Oxford. We do comedy that’s made up on the spot – nothing scripted, nothing prepared in advance – based on random suggestions from the audience.

 

What does a normal Imps show look like? 

M: We start off with some short games, kind of like the ones on ‘Who’s Line Is It Anyway’, and then we end with something longer.

D: For the longer pieces we do improvised musicals, Shakespeare plays, novels, movie scripts. We tend to take one suggestion at the start and then sort of spiral off the back of that.

 

…and is it really improvised? 

D: I did the maths recently to work out how many different combinations we’d have to rehearse, and with around 25 improvisers available, with 3 or so in each game, doing about 30 games in total, there about 35,000 possible different permutations for who’s on stage, and then you take audience suggestions…

 

M: Surely it’s infinite, right? 

D: There are some suggestions that come up more often, but we never know in advance and we don’t plant anyone in the audience. The wackier the ideas the more fun it ends up being.

 

What’s the best thing about doing live improv? 

M: It’s very freeing in that you can’t know what you’re doing until you’re doing it. I like the group aspect too, you have to rely on each other, you have to listen, and go with the flow. It has to be like everyone’s thinking with one mind.

D: I got into comedy for the adrenaline rush, and when you go on to do an improvised song or a rap or whatever, you have no idea what the next line out of your mouth is going to be, so in the moment it’s really exciting. You have no safety net.

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What does it take to make good improv? 

M: I think it’s two big things: a willingness to listen to the other people on stage, and also a willingness to play, because you want to be creative and add ideas without worrying about looking stupid. It’s getting used to doing those things that we’re often trained out of - if you watch children play make believe, they’re essentially improvising, and it’s relearning those skills.

 

What have been the best – or worst – audience suggestions? 

D: This is one of the weirdest ones I remember - we play a game where we ask for periods of history, and we often get the same ones, so it’s fun to get something unusual. We had a man call out “Medieval Belgium”, which for me was brilliant, because everyone knows you don’t know anything about Medieval Belgium, and that’s where a lot of the comedy comes from.

M: The least favourite ones are the ones that come up regularly. We get a lot of cheeses, for some reason. We’re a family friendly show, so we can’t take certain suggestions, which is good, because in a lot of comedy it’s easy to resort to shock factor and cheap jokes. Sometimes the most common and benign things make the best joke because starting small allows us to get more creative.

 

In three words, why should we come and see the Imps perform this summer? 

D: All I can think of is ‘Medieval Belgium musical’.

M: ‘It’ll be great?’. Oh no, that’s terrible. Oh, ‘you’re in charge’! Audience suggestions lead our show, so ultimately the show is made by you coming, and you can influence it as much or as little as you’d like, so you’re in charge. And ‘Medieval Belgium musical’, of course.

 

Catch the Oxford Imps in the Gilded Balloon Teviot’s Billiard Room at 13:15 until August 27th.  

 


Stars on the mile: ‘Break a Leg’ with Gyles Brandreth

 

By Claire Richardson

EFR speak to writer, broadcaster and entertainer, Gyles Brandreth, about his new show ‘Break a Leg’. The show takes us on a semi-autobiographical journey across a star-studded career, discussing the names and faces that inspired and entertained Gyles throughout. As a Fringe fanatic for decades, with multiple sell-out performances, we ask Gyles for his advice for the student and amateur groups that we will review this August.

Gyles

Gyles first encountered the Fringe as a member of the audience in the sixties. Then, it was a cluster of around thirty acts that dotted the mile, and a shadow of the 3,400 strong machine that will explode on the Mile in a week’s time. ‘Then, it was literally a fringe – an add-on’, he muses, ‘and the word ‘stand-up’ did not exist’. In decades since, while new genres emerged and the Fringe community grew, Gyles assures us that the infectious atmosphere remains unchanged.

Another unaltering Fringe attribute is the style that Gyles brings, seen in his first Fringe production in 1997; a one hundred minute musical featuring one hundred musicals called Zipp!. This pastiche style, that attempts to create depth by blending the dynamic drama of various sources, mirrors that of ‘Break a Leg’. Gyles’ new show aligns anecdotes from his experiences in showbiz, rather than excerpts from musicals, ranging from his time as a student at Oxford, to his social sphere as a performer in 2018. As such, Gyles has often worked to combine the highlights of an inconceivable range of pursuits. These include the establishment of a teddy bear factory, a World Record for the longest after dinner speech, the organisation of the first British Scrabble Championships, and hosting his Radio 4 show, Just a Minute - continually embracing jam-packed variety.

Gyles is also former Member of Parliament, and the loss of his seat in 1997 was what propelled the creation of Zipp!; finding both escapism and liberation. Discussing the frontier between politics and theatre, I explain that we would groan to be sent to ‘another one about politics’ when reviewing in 2017 – be it Brexit, or the British and American elections. ‘My show is a Brexit free zone,’ Gyles assures us. ‘I should get a sign. There will be no Boris. There will be no Mrs May.’ He adds ‘my wife said – ‘Gyles, in politics, the door is shut’’. For Gyles, the Fringe was an open door.

‘The Fringe is brilliant,’ he states, describing ‘a place where anyone, young or old, from 14 to 94, can succeed’, as he did in 1997. Nevertheless, after his first Fringe performance, the applause made Gyles wince, accustomed to the heckles and boos of the Commons. ‘Feel the terror – do it anyway – and take your time. There’s terror every time that you perform, even across 26 performances,’ Gyles explains, as we ask how an amateur can succeed. Behind the glitz and glamour, he warns that it is hard work and consistency that allow a live show to flourish - each and every performance must be special, personal and likeable.

Above all, Gyles disparages the star rating system.  ‘There were no star ratings back then!’  he objects, ‘it was a lucky dip. I think the Fringe should be a lucky dip. Everyone gives it a go. I’ve seen some great shows but because that night it wasn’t particularly good, or the reviewer didn’t like that subject, it only got two stars…’.

Gyles has certainly had a lucky dip over the years, but his ambition, aptitude and arduous work ethic have clearly driven the production for the content of this show. Technically decades in the making, he whisks us on his whirlwind tour of the brightest lights and delights of his encounters in the entertainment industry. Irrespective of the stars we would award, the reminiscent ‘Break a Leg’ is set to be full of the star memories, characters and anecdotes of a twinkling career.

You can find Gyles in Edinburgh at Pleasance One, Pleasance Courtyard, 1st-26th August, 4.30pm.  


Interview with the minds behind 'GMO'- Caragh Aylett

 

I was lucky enough to meet with the producer and directors of Cardiff University’s new production, ‘Genetically Modified Organism’ (GMO).  You might have seen them on the Royal Mile staging a protest about the life of Amelia Fowler and demanding her death. With such an intriguing marketing technique, I was excited to find out more about ‘GMO’. Rob Maddison is the writer and director of this bold new production while Lucy Spain is the assistant director and choreographer, and Martin Newman and Dan Gammond produced the piece.

 

So, what’s ‘GMO’ about? 

 

Newman: It’s a courtroom drama where the audience play the jury; everyday they decide the outcome of the play.

Maddison: It portrays a four year old girl, Amelia Fowler, who has been illegally genetically modified by her father, the piece presents a debate over whether or not she should live. Even though Amelia is only four I really wanted to give her a voice, she is represented in the piece as a teddy bear but an older version of her interacts with the audience but cannot be seen by the other characters.

The verdict is about the death of a four year old child

Spain: It blends naturalist theatre with physical theatre as well as projection and one character who is played solely as a voice over.

 

With such a sensitive topic, did you come across any moral issues in the writing? 

 

Maddison: Yes, the piece is entirely focused on moral issues. The audience are deciding whether or not she should be killed. If Amelia remains alive then she sets a precedent for future genetic modification which could be a huge danger for humanity since it could be used in bio weaponry and a huge number of other things. If she is killed then it is the death of a young girl who is entirely innocent.

 

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How are the audience responding so far, are they voting to kill Amelia or to keep her alive? 

 

Maddison: Out of the three performances that we’ve done two of the audiences have voted innocent and one has voted guilty.

Spain: The verdict is about the death of a four year old child, I think if we were talking about a plant then no one would have a problem in viewing them as guilty but we’ve used age as a huge emotional factor to the decision.

 

With such a unique topic what was your motivation?

 

Maddison: I studied biochemistry at Cardiff University and did a specific module in this kind of technology. My lecturer was really excited about a recent breakthrough in the field and how revolutionary this could be.

 

So all the science in the show is accurate? 

 

Maddison: Yes it’s very well researched. I’m really interested in combining science and theatre and people do know a little about GMO through genetically modified crops but this gives a lot more information.

Spain: It’s quite science-heavy in parts but is broken up through physical theatre and projection to make the science digestible.

 

‘GMO’ is on at Paradise in the Vault at 12:45 until 13th August