sat 13/04/2024

Edinburgh Fringe 2023 reviews: CHOO CHOO! / Blood of the Lamb | reviews, news & interviews

Edinburgh Fringe 2023 reviews: CHOO CHOO! / Blood of the Lamb

Edinburgh Fringe 2023 reviews: CHOO CHOO! / Blood of the Lamb

Intrusive thoughts and US abortion policy come under scrutiny in two Fringe shows

Mental health and children's entertainment: Nye Russell Thompson and Duncan Hallis in Choo Choo!

CHOO CHOO! (Or... Have You Ever Thought About ****** **** *****? (Cos I Have)), Pleasance Dome 

Nye and Duncan seem to live a charmed life. Clad in primary-coloured dungarees, they begin their days with a song, and see what adventures the radio has in store for them. Maybe today they’ll be play-acting a game show, or recreating a famous movie scene. Anything to fill the time. Most importantly, they’re counting the days until their holiday. Well, Duncan is.

There are a lot of laughs to be had at new company StammerMouth’s slightly sinister send-up of children’s entertainers, but something doesn’t quite feel right. Maybe it’s Duncan’s asides and instructions to the audience. Maybe it’s the forced fun of it all. But Nye’s increasing disconnection from the cheerful activities is our own cue to wonder: what’s going on here? And at that point, the strikingly titled CHOO CHOO! (Or... Have You Ever Thought About ****** **** *****? (Cos I Have)) starts to get a whole lot darker, a whole lot more serious – and a whole lot more interesting.

Couching a show about mental health as faux children’s entertainment might not feel like the most original idea, but StammerMouth manage to have it both ways, with the contrived happiness and artificial interactions of their larger-than-life personas representing at once the claustrophobic social rules of life and relationships, and also a familiar reality that both characters can find refuge in. Likewise, Nye Russell Thompson and Duncan Hallis – playing their namesakes – manage a difficult blend of heightened performance and genuine emotion, without the two states fighting too much. By the show’s audience-involving send-off, the didactic elements might have gone a little too far – but then, there’s nothing wrong with spelling out the show’s message that your thoughts don’t define who you are. CHOO CHOO! is an eloquent, very moving show about an urgent, widespread issue, but it also showcases a company unafraid to tackle big issues with wit, freshness and insight.

Blood of the LambBlood of the Lamb, Assembly Rooms 

Nessa is confused. She’s in a room with a woman, Val, who she assumes is a medical professional, there to help her get home. There was some kind of emergency on her flight from LA to New York, and now she’s stuck in Dallas. But over the course of their fractured, evasive conversation, Val reveals that not a doctor, but a lawyer. And that she’s there to represent the interests of Nessa’s unborn child.

There’s a neat – and thoroughly appalling – "what if?" scenario that’s slowly revealed over the course of the first half of writer Arlene Hutton’s lacerating critique of current US abortion laws. It takes a while for the full horror of Nessa’s situation to dawn on her – and on us – and even when it does, the newness of the Texan laws means the agony is prolonged further as lawyer Val clarifies and re-clarifies what Nessa is permitted to do while carrying her client, even if it’s now dead.

Hutton’s slow reveal is Blood of the Lamb’s strongest point, and things fester somewhat once Nessa’s predicament is fully understood. It’s perhaps surprising that Hutton doesn’t allow her more righteous fury or outrage, though Nessa and Val’s tricky relationship grows more interesting as personal histories are revealed, secrets shared, fragile bonds established, only to be shattered again.

Blood of the Lamb is an intense, sometimes agonising hour of theatre, and it mercilessly holds up the contradictions and absurdity of US abortion policy for scrutiny and anger. Dana Brooke (pictured above left) as an indignant Nessa and Elisabeth Nunziato (pictured above right) as a slippery Val give brilliantly compelling performances in a fast-moving, fluid production directed by Lyndsay Burch for Sacramento-based B Street Theatre.

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