Edinburgh Fringe 2019 review round-up

Published in The Independent August 9, 2019

Baby Reindeer ★★★★☆ / Sh!t Theatre Drink Rum with Expats ★★★★★ / Lucy McCormick: Post Popular​ ★★★★☆

Some acts defy whatever section of the fringe programme you put them in. Theatre? Comedy? Performance art? Who cares? This year, several performers who have long straddled such boundaries return to the fringe. And however you define them, they’ve got something serious to say.  

Richard Gadd – who won the comedy award for Monkey See Monkey Do – is now at the Roundabout with his debut play. It’s a one-man show, about his own life, delivered with vicious energy – but I guess just way, way too bleak to call stand-up.

It all began when Gadd was working in a pub, and offered a cup of tea to a middle-aged woman named Martha. She took this small gesture of kindness to heart – and became Gadd’s stalker. She’s been in his life for six years. And she has slowly destroyed it.

Endless visits to his bar, tens of thousands of stream-of-consciousness emails and voicemail messages, harassing his family, heckling at shows… The production cleverly flashes and swirls the messages across the domed ceiling; dramatic, horror-movie lights and sound effects up the adrenaline. In the middle, on a tiny revolve, turns an empty bar stool. Jon Brittain directs with the pace, and mounting tension, of a thriller. 

Gadd’s experience is the stuff of nightmares, yet it is also, for a long time, deemed insufficiently threatening for the police to be able to do anything. Surely part of Gadd’s motivation for making the show is to shed light on this insanity.  

It’s not just a pity party though: Gadd is lacerating as he interrogates his own complicity. How he may have, initially, egged Martha on rather than recognising her vulnerability. How her attentions might have supported an image of himself he craved, as a manly man. But, given he was also dealing with the psychological fall-out of being raped as a young man (the subject of Monkey See), is this another instance of Gadd victim-blaming himself?

So yeah, Baby Reindeer is not a laugh a minute. But Gadd confesses that, early on, he found Martha’s mania “compelling”. And audiences absolutely will too. 

Sh!t Theatre’s shows have always combined performance art anarchy with bags of humour, slyly sliced by more serious concerns. In their new show, Sh!t Theatre Drink Rum Expats, it feels like this formula has reached its fullest expression. They tackle some of the most pressing issues of our time – the migrant crisis, global inequality – while also giving the audience a very good time. It might appear haphazard, but the show is cleverly constructed with incredibly impressive tonal control. Making it look easy is just one of Rebecca Biscuit and Louise Mothersole’s many talents.

They went to visit Malta; their friend got them a show on in a pub called “The Pub” as part of Valleta European Capital of Culture. The Pub is grossly proud of the fact it’s where Oliver Reed died after drinking an obscene amount; Sh!t Theatre recreate the bar onstage, handing out Maltese beer and shots of rum. The show has its own desperate, maniacal drink-for-tonight-we die energy.

Their plan is to talk to expats for the show, but the thing that proves most interesting about Malta is that it’s become a gateway for migrants. Biscuit and Mothersole track migrant ships, teach English lessons, and get caught up in protests about the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, an anti-corruption journalist who exposed how the mega-rich can buy European citizenships in Malta.

All this is delivered through cheery chat, sea shanties, crowd-surfing, Oliver-Reed dancing and super-smart – and sometimes very distressing – video and photo montages. Sh!t Theatre have an eye for a telling detail, and how to twist meaning with a well-timed callback. The rank hypocrisy of wealth determining where you’re allowed to live doesn’t have to be spelt out: it’s obvious, in the expats who love Malta’s sun but vote for Brexit. In the rich purchasing “golden passports” while the poor are sent back to Libya to be tortured. Even in Biscuit and Mothersole getting funding to have a jolly in Malta, and then stripping out much of the content of their show in The Pub when they’re told that aren’t allowed to “be political”.

They make amends here. This is political theatre that is true, and hilarious, and horrifying.

In 2016, in her show Triple Threat, Lucy McCormick debuted a grotesquely egotistical stage persona who turned the New Testament into a sexually explicit, staggeringly tasteless pop pageant. The same character is back in Post Popular – and has been on the search for “strong female role models” for her latest “historical re-enactment”. Starting with Eve, she’ll play every famous woman in history. Unfortunately, there are only four.

McCormick’s deadpan music-video versions of their stories are gloriously messy and outrageously funny. Ketchup flies, apples are pulverised, the audience is trampled on. Her choice of pop songs is perfectly absurd: “The First Cut is the Deepest” for Anne Boleyn’s head being hacked off. And even if you’ve seen (the most intimate parts of) her before, the things McCormick will do with her vagina in public never cease to make your jaw drop.

Like Sh!t Theatre, the front is that this is all chaos, when McCormick is actually obviously completely in control. She’s also a genuine triple threat. She can dance, grind, writhe, and belt out pop tunes like, well, an actual pop star.

But Post Popular also sees her hiss at us about her anxiety, insecurity and self-loathing. Is this a comment on how even “strong female role models” feel crap about themselves? About how female performers are now expected to serve up their vulnerabilities for audiences to feast on? Or a real reflection on how hard it is to follow up a show as “popular” as Triple Threat?

Personal or not, the show is certainly a look at what a tough time we give women in the spotlight; women who are successful. Not that any of this is delivered earnestly, obviously. In a McCormick show, serious points usually come wrapped in jokes and smuggled inside an orifice. 

Where next?