Here are my short reviews of the one per cent of the Edinburgh fringe theatre programme that I saw over the past week. Apologies to the other five hundred shows that I missed.
THE WHEEL by Zinnie Harris at the Traverse. A woman wanders through war zones with a mysterious girl who never speaks, witnessing one atrocity after another. The play has superficial echoes of Mother Courage but Bert Brecht did it much better and at least he had some original ideas about war and its effect on human beings. Zinnie Harris seems to have bitten off far more than she can chew, and Vicky Featherstone's over-emphatic direction, with too many big bangs and stage effects, fails to disguise the banality of the script. I couldn't wait for it to end. War is indeed hell, but after the brilliance of Black Watch, the National Theatre of Scotland's latest adventure into conflict theatre is an embarrassment.
MOJO by Jez Butterworth. An extraordinary revival by Acorn Productions of the first hit play by the author of Jerusalem. I hadn't seen it before, but it's terrific. Six unknown young actors directed by Matt Maltby create extraordinary tension and suppressed violence. Backstage at a nightclub in Soho in 1958, the big-time gangsters are moving in on the men who have discovered a young rock 'n 'roll prodigy named Silver Johnny. None of the characters is likeable but all of these thugs and chancers are memorable. Joe Eyre is outstanding as the psychopathic club owner's son Baby. Just the kind of show that makes coming to Edinburgh worthwhile.
THE MONSTER IN THE HALL by David Greig at the Traverse. Greig, author of the compelling Macbeth sequel Dunsinane, shows what a versatile writer he is with a four-hander about the troubled life of a 16-year-old Scottish girl, originally staged at a school and then at Glasgow Citizens Theatre. Duck Macatarsney seems to have everything against her; her biker mother named her after a Ducati, then died in a smash when she was three; her father has MS and lives off takeaway pizza; Lawrence, the boy she admires in her school drama class, wants her to pretend to give him a blow job so the others won't think he's gay because he's interested in fashion. Duck eventually gets the boy, escapes being removed from her dad by social services and reaches a happy ending. Greig tells the story at breakneck speed (perhaps he think all teenagers have ten-second attention spans) with lots of classic jukebox tunes about young love. It all works triumphantly, thanks to a clever and funny script and some great acting, particularly from Gemma McElhinney as Duck.
A SLOW AIR by David Harrower at the Traverse. This playwright, author of the Olivier-winning Blackbird, has been one of my favourites ever since I saw his Knives in Hens more than a decade ago. Here he's not at his best. This is a two-hander about a middle-aged brother and sister, Athol and Morna, estranged by family conflicts. Harrower directs the play himself and the two actors are very convincing, but it could just as well be a radio play. There's nothing visual, and I felt I was hearing a short story with two narrators. I couldn't summon up much interest in this tale, which seemed to meander around and touch not very convincingly on contemporary Scottish events, such as the car bomb attack on Glasgow airport.
BLACK SLAP by Paul Haley. Backstage at the Black and White Minstrels in 1964, and the lads are slapping on the 'Negro' greasepaint for their nightly show just as Harold WIlson wins the election for Labour. It's a scene recreated in loving and authentic detail, and the characters are well observed, but the story, such as it is, takes a heck of a time get started. For the first 45 minutes, all we get is set-up and exposition, and the plot, when it finally arrives, doesn't amount to more than a row about who gets invited to perform at the Royal Variety Performance. Haley has the smart idea of inserting a young black student into the play as the dresser, but fails to follow through by using this character to generate real conflict and tension. It's all far too soft and a bit cheesy; there are some funny lines but the play lacks any dramatic bite to go with its period charm. Some lovely performances, though.