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Fringe 2004 Reviews (7)

By John Clancy
Assembly Rooms

Fatboy, played by Mike McShane, is an Ubu-like, obnoxious, selfish, dirty, lazy and, obviously, fat man who robs, cheats, lies and even murders to get whatever he wants without having to work for it. His wife, Fudgy, is just as obnoxious and devious, if not as fat. The play is in three short acts: the first in Fatboy's filthy house, the second in a courtroom and the third in Fatboy's palace when he is king.

The production uses a strikingly designed set, which uses a fake proscenium which has obviously been painted on canvas together with a painted canvas pretend-red velvet curtain, painted scenery and flat, painted props. The costume and make-up design is also non-naturalistic, creating grotesque caricatures with make-up and padding to various parts of the body. The heavy use of footlights also helps to give the characters a grotesque appearance.

The performances are all excellent, particularly McShane as the totally unlikeable title character. However the material they are working with is poor, using constant streams of shouted profanity in an attempt, presumably, to shock and with little other purpose. There are moments when the play relates the activities and attitudes of Fatboy to wider political themes, but these are rare and sometimes contrived. Overall, this appears to be a production with a very talented team working very hard to try to save poor material.

There is a line when Fatboy is contemplating his own death when he says, "I fear the end". Unfortunately many of the audience were looking forward to it, and quite a few left without waiting for it. It was rather sad at the end when the cast were starting to come on for a second bow and McShane shouted "No!" to them when he saw that half of the remaining spectators had already run towards the exits. Whatever the merits of the play (very few) and the production (rather more), the performers deserved their applause for their own committed and often inspired contributions to this production.

David Chadderton

The Grapes of Wrath
By John Steinbeck, adapted by Frank Galati

A two-and-a-half-hour production of a John Steinbeck novel performed by an American university at eleven o'clock in the morning is not something likely to pull in mass audiences, especially on such a wet morning. However Pepperdine University's production of The Grapes of Wrath is well worth braving the rain for. From the opening moments when the whole cast of nearly thirty performers harmonised beautifully in the opening song, it was clear that this was to be a high quality production.

The production fuses Steinbeck's story with the music of Woody Guthrie, and all music is played and sung live by the company. This is a true ensemble production, with the large cast collaborating to play various parts, move scenery, sing, narrate and play quite an array of instruments. They manage to bring vividly to life Steinbeck's characters and the humour, warmth, strength and pain of his stories. There are no weaknesses at all in this cast; all show a total commitment to their roles during every moment they are on stage. Although this is an ensemble piece, there were particularly exceptional performances from the young actors playing Tom and his mother, with some extremely good support from Tom's father and the ex-preacher Casey.

This young cast has managed to create one of the most accomplished, moving and compelling pieces of theatre on the Fringe, which would not, apart from the large size of its cast, look out of place on the stage of the Traverse.

David Chadderton

Nancy Cartwright: My Life as a 10-Year-Old Boy
By Nancy Cartwright, Rose Goss and Peter Kjenaas
Assembly Rooms

Nancy Cartwright is the voice of Bart Simpson, plus Nelson Muntz, Ralph Wiggum and a few others, in The Simpsons. That in itself is enough to sell out the largest performance space in the Assembly Rooms. The show consists of Cartwright talking about her life, relating anecdotes and showing clips from The Simpsons, opening with a sequence on film of nearly ten minutes showing excerpts from her work cut with other clips.

The show mostly feels scripted and rehearsed, even though it is trying to give the impression of an off-the-cuff, intimate chat with her fans, and there is more than a touch of Hollywood schmaltz in her delivery (admittedly nowhere near the level of Liza Minnelli, but not exactly down-to-earth either). Technically this is a very slick show, with seamless cuts between Cartwright's speeches and film clips on the large screen behind her (although perhaps they should find a way to avoid displaying the word 'play' on the screen every time the image changes!). The clips themselves are sometimes interesting, but many of them feel like padding; often they consist of clips from The Simpsons that all true fans would probably already have at home on video. There is even a bit of audience participation, where some people from the audience are invited on stage to compete in a Simpsons trivia quiz for a tee shirt.

This is interesting and entertaining, but not really a 'must see' even for Simpsons fans, except for those who want to be able to say they've seen live the person who voices their hero.

David Chadderton

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©Peter Lathan 2004