Coal Head, Toadstool Mouth and Other Stories

Mon 8th – Sat 27th August 2011

reviews

Craig Slade

at 14:35 on 21st Aug 2011

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I’m unsure if it was simply the genre of this production that resulted in me deriving levels of boredom previously unseen during my Fringe experience, or the piece’s poor execution. Suffice to say that watching this ‘play’ – if that is a term that can be applied to this sort of storytelling – was a wholly bizarre experience.

I cannot conceive of a single solitary reason why students at the Sussex University Drama Society would choose to bring this piece, of all the drama they could have chosen, to the Fringe. There is a large amount of storytelling up at Edinburgh this year, it is true, but the majority that I have seen at least boasts at least some level of coherence as a piece of drama. There is a special level of insanity involved in travelling the 431.9 mile journey from Sussex University to Hill Square, Edinburgh (eight hours and four minutes by car – that’s right – I checked on Google maps) to bring a collection of what are, quite frankly, decidedly odd fairy tales that make very little sense as a collection, and even less linguistic and creative sense internally, to the festival. And if that’s a run-on sentence that makes very little coherent, linguistic, or creative sense, then perhaps it gives you a brief taster.

And whilst there were enjoyable moments, these were few and far between. A highlight was a short piece where three cast members took parts as Munch’s The Scream, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and Verneer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring, acting out the paintings’ respective relationships each other – the audience wanted more, but it was short-lived.

A particularly strange (and, if you ask me, misguided) decision came in the piece’s final and centre story, Coalhead and Toadstool Mouth. The director apparently decided to have narrator Josh Crisp speak at one animated yet monotonous tone throughout the entire half hour section. There was no dramatic structure to the story; no change in style for the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement, or anything else. He simply spoke as if everything he was narrating was the most important and exciting thing he had ever witnessed; there was not the slightest change in mood even when a character decided to jump from the top window of the castle’s tower. This had the effect of giving the entire piece an impression of inconsequentiality; it felt trivial – the audience had no reason to care. One would have thought that there would have been at least some ‘acting’ involved somewhere along the line, and while there were good performances from other cast members, in a production where storytelling style is the most important element, this was seriously flawed.

So, there you have it. This is the piece I have, as yet, enjoyed least at the Fringe. If you’re into bizarre storytelling then you should go to see this – but, realistically, there are more creatively competent efforts of similar material all over Edinburgh this year; this isn’t the one to spend your money on.

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Ashleigh Wheeler

at 18:59 on 21st Aug 2011

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Stylistic bugbears and pacing issues stop this show from fully becoming what it often promises to be: an enchanting take on storytelling that holds you in a trance like level of attention.

Four figures, dressed in black but with the white painted faces of puppets or dolls or perhaps the Black Swan, are the only accessories to the stage in this production save for a wooden box and a few scant props. Indeed, even lighting and sound are minimal to the extreme, with a single musical number being echoed repeatedly through the piece and changes in lighting states limited to one use of a torch and some uplights. In places, this minimalism, which is mirrored in the pared-down and stylised style of acting, works well, allowing us to focus on the smallest action and all of the words being said. the falling sequence in the final tale of Coalhead and Toadstool mouth is an example of this. The movement and attention to detail it entails is beautiful, ethereal, and sad.

In other places, however, it is easy to get bored. Slight shifts in tone earlier in the piece can feel misjudged, not the injection of a less intense kind of energy I assume it was meant to be. it would have benefitted from more complex technical feautures (although I don’t know what was available at this venue), as well as if anything just a bit less stillness to be fully engaging. However, the stranger stories, recalling the half-remembered oddness of Hans Christian Andersen, still worked better than the scenes that incorporated a tad too much normality for my liking. Talk of bourbon biscuits and reading the papers didn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the piece.

The young actors of this production move well, speak well and act well. But too often the tales rely wholly on an ability to move with complete elegance and skill. They’re very good, but to have a show this sparse you can’t help but think that you’d need to be a professional to hold the audience’s attention the whole way through. An hour can be a long time to concentrate on stories that are narrated rather than spoken, and told through movement so minimalist it often just involves them standing still for several minutes at a time.

Still, this production shows a group with potential, and the show certainly worked into itself as it got to the title story. Though as a whole it could work harder to keep the audience’s attention, it had flashes of real beauty and wonder.

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Comments

Maryon Lawry; 23rd Aug 2011; 10:33:11

I think Craig Slade has lost the plot and shouldn't give up his day job!

I found the overall performance of these four very promising actors, very inspiring, humour well timed and very entertaining. The diverse nature of the play, was an excellent 'vehicle' to show the extreme talents of each actor. Be prepared to be carried along on a journey of thought provoking drama interspersed with regular subtle humour. A wonderful experience!

Ian Lawry; 24th Aug 2011; 18:28:39

What can I say? Did this guy see the same production? It seems not.

The only drawback to this was the Symposium Hall - yes it is very low on atmosphere - which only highlights the ability of the cast further! The production I felt was well presented, it took me on a journey with each story. Humourous, a little dark at times and the whole made good by fulluse of the limited stage by the cast - this only made us focus on them and all that they were doing - WELL DONE SUDS

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