Edinburgh Fringe Reviews: Vaudeville

Three tales taking us back to the vaudeville-era

Feature by Ben Venables | 19 Aug 2016
  • Boris and Sergey

On hearing that a slice of bohemian North London had transformed the space behind Assembly Theatre with a vintage double-decker and Omnitorium, the anti-craft-beer crowd may wish it had stayed a small car park. But credit to Henry Maynard and Flabbergast Theatre for creating such a lovely little enclave between the Meadows and George Square – we hope it becomes a permanent fixture for the Fringe.

Within the theatre, Boris and Sergey's Preposterous Improvisation Experiment [★★★] is likewise a lovely show. On entering, seeing two puppets that resemble late-Victorian footballs, each laboriously controlled by three puppeteers, suggests this might be a long hour. First impressions are again confounded, however; the story that unfolds sees a war-time tale of young Jimmy wandering from the trenches. The show, devised by audience suggestion, features the puppets enacting anal sex, the befriending (and subsequent carrot-assisted knifing) of Hitler and a Irish dance finale – but not before Boris gets kicked in the dick.

Unfortunately, Boris and Sergey's characterisation isn't as well established early on as it could be. Consequently, all the suggestions are channeled through seeming blank slate personalities. This is unlike, say, Austentatious, where however random the given story title, the idea still has to be filtered through the prism of the Georgian novels. Not that it detracts too much from the fun and there's an impressive feat of memorisation and physicality as they perform the tale backwards. Entertaining, different and atmospheric, the experiment – both this show and its venue – is certainly a success.

Les Enfants Terribles in The Vaudevillains
Les Enfants Terribles in The Vaudevillains at the Fringe

Next, we sprint across the gardens to join the lengthy queue for Les Enfant Terribles' The Vaudevillains [★★] in the 750-seater Palais du Variete. When Charlie, the feckless owner of the Empire Theatre is shot, every one of his acts is a suspect – from the conjoined triplets, the Cerberus sisters, to mime Gaston Gasteau. Set in the Victorian music hall era, everything seems set for a gruesome whodunnit.

Sticking to the vaudeville format, each act reveals their past in a song and routine in turn. But this is a major flaw at the script level – by introducing each character's back story one by one, it slows any advancing plot or mystery to a halt. Subsequently, it drags and becomes less a whodunnit and more of a who-cares-whodunnit. It's a spirited performance , and as standalone numbers, the individual routines are enjoyable; however their best musical number is rather flogged to death and the twist is predictable. It doesn't beat staying at home with an Agatha Christie novel.

Tom Neenan, photo: James Deacon

Meanwhile, also set in a Victorian theatre is Tom Neenan's Vaudeville [★★★★]. In this one-man show, Neenan plays a security guard who finds himself in front of an audience and enacts stories from the theatre's past. He sets a high standard early on, playing both ventriloquist and dummy in the first horror tale – having to bounce back and forth between the characters seems to make plain the detail of each creation and impresses as a performance. The quality and nuance of characterisation continues with an actor wishing to perform Hamlet, who decides to dodge a review by murdering an infamous theatre critic.

The self-awareness of the material is occasionally overdone here, but goes down well in front of a Fringe crowd. The final story is appropriately Faustian for the spine-tingling genre Neenan pay homages to, and there's a nice twist to round off an accomplished show.

Boris and Sergey: Preposterous Improvisation Experiment, Assembly George Square (Omnitorium), 3-28 Aug (not 16), 9pm, £6-12
The Vaudevillains, Assembly George Square Gardens (Palais du Variete), 4-28 Aug (not 16), 10.10pm, £11-16
Tom Neenan: Vaudeville, Underbelly Med Quad (Buttercup), 3-28 Aug, 4.15pm, £6-10.50