sat 04/04/2020

Edinburgh Fringe: Bo Burnham/ Ovid's Metamorphoses/ Tony Tanner's Charlatan | reviews, news & interviews

Edinburgh Fringe: Bo Burnham/ Ovid's Metamorphoses/ Tony Tanner's Charlatan

Edinburgh Fringe: Bo Burnham/ Ovid's Metamorphoses/ Tony Tanner's Charlatan

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Bo Burnham says he doesn’t like the terms musical comic, internet sensation or teenage wonder. Well he’s all three, save the last now, as he turned 20 during this year’s Fringe - and anyway he prefers the term prodigy, he tells us in deadpan tones typical of the deeply ironic, faux offensive manner of his performance style. But sensationally talented he undoubtedly is, and this is an hour so stuffed with gags - verbal, visual and musical - that one almost doesn’t have enough time to savour each one before yet another rolls by.

Bo Burnham, Pleasance Dome *****

Burnham began doing musical skits, filmed in his bedroom back home in Massachusetts, to entertain his older brother who was away at college. He then started posting them on the net in 2006 and now his YouTube videos have had a staggering 60 million-plus viewings. One of the funniest sections of an hour that speeds by is when Burnham runs through all the plays he has written (very little he says should be taken as gospel), including the cross between Lord of the Rings and an African American love story (“Ah, Precious”), and the one about an intergalactic predator, “The Rapes of Graff”. As that last pun - and the show’s title Words, Words, Words - suggests, Burnham is a wordsmith to be reckoned with, and this show is chock-full of beautifully crafted one-liners, asides, jokes within jokes and false endings (“There are two kinds of people, those who finish lists....”).

But he is also musically adept and his songs and raps are perfectly formed works in themselves, with classical, biblical and Shakespearean allusion agogo - no wonder he has been called the Tom Lehrer of our day. The range of targets for his sardonic humour is wide - religious belief, political heroes, misogynistic rappers - and the frequent sexual references are clever and rude rather than offensive; a sonnet about sex ends with the line: “Like Christ I came, upon an ass.”

One runs out of superlatives to describe this show, so accomplished is it as a piece of comedic art. From someone twice Burnham’s age it would be brilliant; from a 20-year-old it is jaw-droppingly awesome. Until 29 August Veronica Lee

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Pleasance Dome *****

When I heard that a group of Rose Bruford College graduates had wrapped up some of those great Greco-Roman tales of transformation 1940s-style, complete with period musical numbers and film, I expected something slick and funny. Pants on Fire’s latest production is certainly both, but its masterly pace and weave find room for pathos and even profundity too, with imagination enough for a dozen shows.

Pathos, indeed, is essential to a fantasia that takes Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death as one of its starting points. In a climactic sequence, Theseus’s journey through the labyrinth to slay the Minotaur is brilliantly imagined as the last battle of a dying soldier surrounded by a chorus of ooh-ing, aah-ing nurses: very Waste Land, very Ulysses. Ariadne, bereaved, sings her 1940s lament to the waves and a couple of fishy commentators: sadness and comedy intermingle. As they do in Ovid’s fabulously touching story of Io, beloved by Jupiter and transformed into a heifer – read gas mask and patterned dress - by the jealous Juno, only able to inscribe her name in the dust with a hoof before a grief-stricken father.

The amours of the smoking-jacketed number-one god are among the threads that bind the revue-like presentation together. Water and air run through the tales: an Esther Williams bathing-belle Salmacis pursuing Hermaphroditus, Daedalus and Icarus as bomber pilots. There’s also puppetry – a wildly inventive, war-mad midget Cupid – and film (a bittersweet re-enactment of Echo and Narcissus mingling cinema spectators with the silver screen, and a truly fantastical metamorphosis which I won’t spoil).

These versatile young actors manage everything from tap dance to close harmony, turns on keyboard and percussion, even the odd trombone solo. But it’s not just for show. Lecoq-trained Rose Bruford Head of Movement Peter Bramley makes sure it’s all tight and breathtaking to look at on a limited budget: those eyes of Argus, the get-up for yeuch-to-men Daphne. And the final message, launched by a re-emergent Tiresias, about the rift between man and the environment feels organic rather than preachily tacked-on. I might have docked a star for vocal projection, which sometimes needs work; but then the rating goes back up for sheer invention. Some foreknowledge of the myths might be a help; but so dynamically presented are these Metamorphoses that you could take anyone from eight to 100. Until 30 August David Nice

Tony Tanner’s Charlatan, Assembly Hall ****

Strains of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade greet the spectators before the lights are dimmed and Tony Tanner’s Diaghilev takes solitary centre stage. And then, for the next hour, no music, no visuals, no dance; the golden age of the Ballets Russes is all effortlessly conjured up by the art that conceals art. The Broadway veteran, who last appeared at the Fringe back in 1963, dons a mostly soft-spoken Russian accent, with just a hint of not exactly appropriate Faginish “my dears”, to draw the audience into his colourful world.

There’s necessary biography to despatch: Tanner doesn’t take it for granted that his audience knows the background, though it’s hard to imagine anyone coming to this show who doesn’t at least know a bit about the great impresario. Probably many won’t know about his art-collecting habits before he turned to the theatre, and these are expertly outlined. The true magic begins, appropriately enough, when he relives his first meeting with Nijinsky, soon to be his lover and the greatest dancer of all time. We have spellbinding whistlestop tours of Le spectre de la rose – where Tanner helps us visualise Nijinsky suspended in mid air as he leaps through the open window – and Petrushka, not too obtrusively engaged to flash us forward to the sad, broken puppet that Nijinsky eventually became.

Broader brush strokes are all perfectly plausible: it probably was indeed the sex and violence that sent the Parisian audiences mad rather than the refinements of Karsavina or the riotous designs of Bakst (though Tanner conjures these brilliantly in more florid evocation, of Scheherazade). And there’s no false sentiment as the diabetic Diaghilev nears his end, indulging himself to the last. It’s all as simple as a talking-head TV documentary; but I wonder if telly these days would ever allow anything so low key in its eloquence, so uncondescending in its celebration of an artform that the faultlessly professional Tanner obviously loves to bits. A jewel. Until 30 August David Nice

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