fri 14/06/2024

Edinburgh Fringe: Shakespeare - The Man from Stratford/ Mick Ferry/ John Grant | reviews, news & interviews

Edinburgh Fringe: Shakespeare - The Man from Stratford/ Mick Ferry/ John Grant

Edinburgh Fringe: Shakespeare - The Man from Stratford/ Mick Ferry/ John Grant

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Simon Callow as Shakespeare: his energetic performance is at times dazzling

The premise of Jonathan Bate’s one-man play, directed by Tom Cairns, is simple but surprisingly effective: a trawl through the seven ages of Shakespeare, from babe to box, told through a mixture of biographical narrative illuminated by relevant scenes from Will’s work.

Shakespeare – The Man From Stratford, Assembly Hall ****

The aim is to fathom how a boy from an archetypal English market town became the world’s most celebrated wordsmith. We see how his life and work entwined; how the rhetoric and wordplay he learned in the schoolroom grounded him in the language of power and politics; how the young sensualist, married at 18 to a woman eight years older and already pregnant with his child, mastered the language of love. And so on.

What could have been a gaudy jukebox of greatest hits linked by clunky exposition in practice works tremendously well, due in no small part to the sheer dynamism of Simon Callow. In his black velvet suit, he skips from Welsh schoolmaster to nursemaid to Julius Caesar to Hamlet, shape-shifting from a cockney Bottom, all thuggish enthusiasm, to a stricken Lear. It is, at times, quite dazzling.

Callow is a booming, demonstrative actor, unashamedly larger than life. The battlefield soliloquy from Henry V creeps up to a six or a seven on the Brian Blessed scale, but he is also wonderfully impish, hitching up his trousers, rubbing his hands with child-like glee, rolling his tongue around the word “woo” with endless joy.

His energy isn’t always well served by the sheer size of the Assembly Hall, but the acoustics are glorious and the set - with its subtle projection screens and simple signifiers (a globe, a mechanical dog, fire) – crisply effective. Above all, he delivers meaning. The day after Tony Blair announced he was handing his publishing spoils to the “honoured” casualties of war, Callow made Falstaff’s speech from Henry IV Part 1 seem breathtakingly prescient. “Can honour set to a leg? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. What is honour? A word. Air.”

The Man from Stratford ends with Shakespeare, largely unlauded by the end of his own lifetime, returned to earth in the shadow of the Forest of Arden, watched over by Puck. By which time we feel we understand both his heart and his work just a little better. Until 30 August Graeme Thomson

Mick Ferry, The Caves ***

To describe someone as a club comic at the Fringe is generally to be condescending, but that is precisely what Mick Ferry was for 15 years, and a very accomplished one, too. This is his second Fringe show and, while he has developed the narrative style necessary for the hour-long format, his previous life shows in his easy bonhomie and absolute command of the stage from the minute he walks on. He's instantly likeable and we are willing to go on his journey with him.

The Missing Chippendale
is an autobiographical piece, prompted by the Mancunian’s experience at last year’s festival, when his show played in the room next door to the male stripper troupe and was drowned out by the noise of 300 screaming women drooling over bodies beautiful.

But the piece quickly becomes about Ferry’s own body issues - there’s a first for a male comic - as he describes his experience of being a fortysomething fat bloke and trying to lose weight. He tried various things, such as taking speed, but it just made him eat more quickly, he says. Along the way he also deals with vexing issues of our day, including the unappealing camel-toe look sported by ladies in tight trousers, the importance of the cock-sock for strippers, and should Greggs be a drive-through?

The show’s climax may be a tad predictable, but Ferry has a well-constructed hour with a high laugh quotient.  Until 29 August Veronica Lee

John Grant, The Wee Red Bar ****

“Have I told you about my mother’s uterus?” John Grant’s casual aside during a technical lull at last night’s one-off show at the Fringe’s Edge Festival encapsulated exactly what makes him so compelling. A gay, 42-year-old former drug addict from Michigan, Grant laces his slow, sad, almost-AOR piano ballads with inventive profanity, weird humour, drug confessions and deeply naked personal despair. It’s like Mark Eitzel playing the songs of the Carpenters and Barry Manilow, or early Elton John inhabited by the spirit of Rufus Wainwright. 

Last night was a bijou affair, and the intimacy served him well. Dressed in only piano, guitar and some weird electronic gizmo that sounded like a Theremin on heat, the songs from Grant’s solo debut, Queen of Denmark, were shorn of Midlake’s lush backing, putting even more emphasis on Grant’s wonderful pipes. "Caramel" is not just a sumptuous song but also the word that best evoked the luxuriant, sticky texture of his voice.

If the pared-down settings tended to emphasise the similarity of the tempos, structures, melodies and themes - it was all lovely, but the loveliness existed in a single dimension – a song like "Queen of Denmark" (which was written on a previous visit to Scotland: we should be proud; hell, we should put up a plaque) benefited hugely from its sparseness. Last night’s remarkably raw reading knocked several spots off the recorded version, reducing everyone to awed silence.

A new song, "You Don’t Have To", was nerve-slicingly personal, poetic, funny and deeply beautiful, while "Marz" transformed a list of exotic ice-cream sundaes into something oddly affecting. A witty, gracious host, when all the abasement threatened to get a little too much, Grant threw in "Silver Platter Club", where the pain came with a brisk tempo. 

For an encore he dusted down "Paint the Moon" by his old band the Czars, but on this evidence Grant has no need to revisit past glories. The room may have been wee but the future is unlikely to be. Graeme Thomson

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