Head of Steam Awards 2018

OK, maybe not awards as such, but in honour of the relaunch of Steamhead, here is a summary of the best examples of things I saw at this years Edinburgh Fringe Festival. If anyone claims to tell you the best 10 shows at the Fringe, well they're pretty much telling BIG porky pies. There are around 3500 different shows at the Fringe, and around 300 shows on every hour, so nobody can possibly claim to know the best, just the best out of what they have seen.

So with that in mind, to relaunch my site, here are the Head of Steam awards, or the Steamies for short. Basically any act that has managed to build up a big enough head of steam to catch my attention and become the best in a category out of the small fraction of the shows I got to see.

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Best Actor - Tom Ratcliffe for Velvet

There was a whole host of candidates for this one, from Simon Callow at his monologuing best in De Profundis, to the facial flexibility of Sylvester McCoy and Robert Picardo in A Joke and even the sublime chemistry between William Patrick Harrison and Max Young in The Dip. But I think to spot the best in an actor you need to go see them in a one person show, where they play more then one part.

Velvet from work.Theatre was such a play, performed exquisitely by Tom Ratcliffe, in such a tiny space, but that actually gave us a real close up view of his craft. Rather than being a monologue, as so many one person shows can be, this was a series of conversations with a few characters. Each one had their own intonation, speech pattern and posture, so much so you could soon spot who was talking next by the shift in posture.

An excellent play, a little bit creepy in places which raised physical goosebumps both during the show, and thinking about it afterwards (even now). Tom Ratcliffe is definitely one to look out for.

Best Actress - Becky Williams for Grace Notes

Whilst researching this award online I had great difficulty finding any social media presence for Becky Williams so she may never see this review, but that doesn't mean you, the reader, shouldn't find out about her, You have no such problems when she's on stage, her presence is the only thing you notice in the room for the next 50 minutes. As with Best Actor, the best way to spot a good actress is in a multi-character one person show. In Grace Notes we have two very clearly defined characters. Grace Miller, tall, confident and brash with a little bit of swagger, and "The Otter", the diminutive, lip squirming leader of the offenders group - we all know an otter.

The difference between the two characters was massive, both physically, voice quality and accents. The change was always done bang on the beat from Grace, to The Otter and back to Grace - snap, snap, snap. But it wasn't like watching a tennis match, like it can so easily be if badly done, but like adjusting your gaze slightly between the two following the dialogue, as if both were on stage all the time.

It also has to be noted that I've never seen anyone manage to play a piano standing up, with the piano on a low footstool AND manage to operate a foot pedal at the same time - incredible! Becky Williams is definitely one to watch out for.

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Best Comedy - The Dip

For best comedy I was torn between The Dip from Milk and Blood Theatre, and Police Cops from The Pretend Men. But where Police Cops split their content over 2 shows, The Dip had it all in one, and perhaps just that little bit more. The Dip is what I'd call an "out there" comedy, perhaps a little too wacky for some, but then it is about a man on a bit of a "trip", so not surprising.

The show has a bit of everything, the first thing you notice is the "House band" which are on stage as you walk in and at the end as you walk out, and get drawn into the madness in between. The show then weaves a fine line between tender moments between Al and Nic, surreal scenes where Al loses his face and even downright slapstick scenes, including one where Al hits a table head on, and I defy you not to wince - all done quite safely though, but don't try this at home boys and girls.

Then there's Officer Flatfish, what can you say about Officer Flatfish, apparently he's a dick of a fish, and we do get to see a lot of him in the rear end of the show - more than that I shall say not.

It's a fantastic show, the only one I've ever seen that gets the whole audience involved in quite such a way, and if enough people see it I suspect "Baba ganoushed" and "dick of a fish" will become part of popular speech - one not to miss.

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Best Dance - Burn the Floor: Rebels of the Ballroom

Rebels of the Ballroom really undersells this show as there are so many styles of dance in this show beyond your traditional ballroom styles. Within in moments everyone on stage is doing the shag, and before it's over we have bits of Lindy, Rock and Roll, ballet and even a little moon walking. But then I guess they're rebels, so they just don't care!

From a naturalistic start, the troupe arrive on the stage bit by bit from all directions, but then the music starts and it's non-stop, high octane dancing for 18 minutes flat before they take their foot off the pedal. They have to slow down a little at this point before they dissolve, having worked up such a sweat the first four rows are in the splash zone ever time they spin.

Of course the slow bits are no less impressive either. At every point in the show there are incredible moves, breathtaking aerials, and so much going off you can't see it all in one showing. Not all troupe members are on stage all the time, cleverly allowing many costume changes without really slowing down.

The music is also so varied from Shakira to Michael Jackson, or Led Zeppelin to Carl Orff, there's something for everyone. Of course there's only one song you can top this off with, and that's by The Sweet - you know the one.

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Best Drama - Testament

Velvet came so close to taking this award as well, but Testament from Chalk Line Theatre, just edged it out with more texture and variation, using its great ensemble cast to the full.

Max has been involved in a car crash, and he's in hospital. He can't remember exactly what happened, and worried that his girlfriend Tess hasn't been to see him yet.

What follows is set in two worlds; in Max's mind he tries to piece together what happened, remembering that moment when he first met Tess; in the real world where his brother consults with Doctors to try and save Max's life.

As Max's condition worsens he has both Jesus and the Devil on hand to guide him on his decent as he begins to realise the chilling truth of what really happened and the horrifying choice that has to be made.

This is an incredibly written, directed and executed play. The combination of set, lighting and soundscape makes it very clear, at every moment, which world you are in. In other hands you could so easily have got lost. An incredible piece of drama, well worth a look.

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Best Company - The Pretend Men

To catch lightning in a bottle once is lucky, to do it twice requires real skill. That's exactly what The Pretend Men have done with their Police Cops and Police Cops in Space shows. The Pretend Men are a products of the East 15 School of Acting Contemporary Theatre Course, as are at least 4 other shows on this list that I know of, so that school must be doing something right.

The shows basically rehabilitates the old cliches of the 70s and 80s Cop Shows. The first being set around the turn of the 70s to the 80s, but the second is set in the future - so just the 80s cliches are available in that one. Of course they don't restrict themselves to just Cop cliches, Terminator, Back to the Future, Footloose and Flashdance come under their gaze amongst others. They even managed to sneak in a professional dancer body double for the really tricky bits, just like they did in the 80s. It was so smoothly done I don't think anybody noticed.

They're clearly trained actors, knowing all about rules. You set a rule, then follow the rule, then subvert the rule. In West Side Story dancing and clicking your fingers is spoiling for a fight, in Police Cops wearing a glove with two fingers missing is packing heat. As odd as that may sound it really works.

If you've been to the Fringe you know you get bombarded by flyers, often many times for the same show, but in my time there I never got a single Police Cops flyer, yet both shows I saw were sold out. The Pretend Men are doing this almost entirely by word of mouth and reputation.

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Best Improv - Bumper Blyton

Improv shows are like a box of chocolates, you never quite know what you are going to get! Which of course is most of the reason you go to one. Bumper Blyton was my first show at the Fringe of any kind and a great one to start with after 7 hours of driving!

Talking of starting, they found a great way to quickly get to the audience suggestions to work around. Instead of waiting for the audience to sit down, they grabbed you in the queue, gave you a piece of paper and asked you to write down the answer to one of three questions. Then they slotted these suggestions onto the sides of three foam cubes and got those thrown onto the stage at the beginning of the show - boom, job done.

Of course being called Bumper Blyton you did have a bit of clue as to the flavours your box held, and for us that day those flavours were to be enhanced with Houses burning down, 'Mericans and Trump (OK maybe that last one can't enhance anything).

For me the highlight of this show was when one cast member apologies for throwing her colleague under the bus by setting up his next lines be delivered in song, to get the reply "Knock Knock - Who's there - It's a duet". I guess you had to be there, but it was funny.

Bumper Blyton is definitely one to put on your list, then you can put one of your thoughts on their list.

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Best Moment - Dreamland

Every so often a film or show has a moment in it that is soooo good that many people that haven't even seen it, know all about it. Like the "Here's Johnny" moment in The Shining, the Shower Scene in Psycho or the interrogation scene in Naked Instinct. Dreamland has one of those moments.

In fairness to Hyperdrive Theatre who are putting on Dreamland I won't give away the exact moment just yet, as they still have a few showings left in this run, suffice to say I nearly called this award "Most creative use of milk or yoghurt in a drama" but I couldn't fit it on the graphic.

To call it a moment is also a bit unfair as it's actually a 3 part element, you know like Rising Action, Climax and Denouement, except in this case... (no let's not go there either). There is definitely a "first laugh", followed by "nervous tension", followed by "Eeuuwwww", you'll know it when you see it. Quite a brave move to put in the play, but the audience seemed to swallow it, Put it this way, you may think twice about ever drinking milk out of a mug again.

Moment aside Dreamland is an excellent play about the "Greed is good" ethos in the City, and spells out in no uncertain terms what the consequences can be. A mix of straight drama with a little "dance/movement" thrown in. The "Telephone ballet" is something to behold, I still don't know how they never end up in knots.

A great show, go see it, find out what "The Moment" is - just don't take the kids.

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Best Musical - Half Moon Shania

Not your typical "people bursting into song in the middle of the street" kind of Musical Drama, but musical drama nevertheless.

It's 1999 and all female punk band The G-Stringz are seeing out the new year, and hoping to strike it big, You see Diamond Records are coming to see their gig and this might be their big break. It might also be their big break up too, the stakes are high.

Half Moon Shania is a high energy performance from Burnt Lemon Theatre. Each character on stage is a well defined, larger than life punk, each with their own troubles and issues to deal with, but none more so than Lola. Like Velvet this play tackles the #MeToo issue, but in a very different way. Half Moon Shania is a lot more upbeat than Velvet, which reveled in the darkness, but the darkness IS there in Half Moon Shania, and catches you kind of by surprise.

They manage to tread the fine line between a fun show, and tackling a very serious issue, leaving you questioning how you would have reacted, and also to ponder the difference in options between 1999 and now.

Give your ears an early pick me up, from the Punks with the voices of Angels, and you get a free plectrum to boot - what more could you want?

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Best Music/Cabaret - The FlyBoys: A Postmodern Swing Sensation!

This was a close runner with The Bugle Boys, but The Fly Boys just tipped it with one extra layer of harmony. We very nearly missed this one, as we were outside the Gilded Ballon, Teviot until we realised that Rose Theatre wasn't just another room inside that building. So if you go to see them, make sure you're in New Town!

So who are The Fly Boys, well as they describe themselves, they are a 4 piece "Man Collective", the days of being a "Boy Band" are a bit behind them. Not that you would think that from the energy in this show, so they're like a Boy Band, but with better shoes - oh and they can sing - Oh Yes!

Imagine you had a time machine, and you took some of today's songs back to the Thirties or Forties and made them sound like songs are supposed to - that's what the Fly Boys do.  Sometimes simply by adding a swing beat and the tightest 4 part vocal harmony you ever did hear, other times they do a mash up with a song from that era, Which ever route they take these modern songs sound like you've never heard them before. They are an aural orgasm, which is a phrase you can only get away with in a written review.

They told us they can swing any song, which I well believe, but they also said just because you can, doesn't mean you should (Mariah Carey please take note). Needless to say every morning afterwards, when I saw the hotel's inspirational "Bright Eyes" poster, I had a little smile. If you want to find out why, or you just want a damn good toe tapping end to your day at the Fringe, then go and see The Fly Boys.

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Best Set/Props - Ovid's Metamorphoses

A splendidly heroic looking chap in uniform with a spiffy moustache stopped us in the streets and told us we MUST see this show about mythological characters, set during World War II with acting, music, dancing, puppetry and multi-media. Now half of me was thinking "how an Earth is that going to work?" and the other half of me is thinking "I've got to go and see how they make that work?". I'm so glad I listened to the second half.

It soon becomes apparent that in addition to the great acting, story telling, the three headed dog in gas masks and the tap dancing cow (did I imagine that?), there was another "star" to this show - The Set. Most Fringe sets are quite sparse, mainly because you have to get it on and off the stage in the short turn around between shows, but Pants on Fire Theatre have come up with an astonishingly simple, yet incredibly effective stage set made from door sized panels painted white on one side and black on the other.

Cleverly choreographed movements of the panels could quickly change the mood from a light to a dark set. The white panels themselves became media projection surfaces, and characters could be made to disappear or transform in the blink of an eye by moving the panels around the actors.

Without the panels this is still an extremely entertaining show and well worth a punt. With them it is nothing short of astounding, it has to be seen to be believed - so go and believe.

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Best Sound Design - Testament

For quick in and out shows that the Edinburgh Fringe demands, scenery can be a little sparse, so something else needs to be able to set the mood. This is where sound design comes in, and I have to say I was a little surprised how little of it I heard at the Fringe. Velvet had some clever use, especially around the instant message conversations, and Dreamland had some pulsing rhythms to reflect the heart beat of business, but Testament went one step further.

This play charts one man's decent into madness, but switches back on forth between his delusional world and the real world. In the delusional world director/composer William Patrick Harrison treats us to ethereal, warm organic sounds composed from all sorts of sources from electronica, orchestra and human vocals, with even a touch of bird song dropped in. Once back in the real world we get nothing which snaps the audience back to reality, and coveys the feeling that poor Max is more happy in his delusions than the stark reality. Of course as his decent continues these ethereal sounds start to take on a darker tone, making the stark reality possibly a better alternative.

I hate to think just how many layers are in this soundtrack, and how long it took to produce. The sad thing for many sound designers is that most of the audience doesn't even realise it is there, but they would if it wasn't. If you manage to get to Testament, just keep an ear out for the bits you aren't watching, you'll be impressed.

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#IntoTheUnknown - Sit with us for a moment and remember

The tagline for the fringe this year is #IntoTheUnknown, and this award goes to that show that I thought most illustrated that tagline, and in so many ways. It is quite difficult to talk about this show without giving too much away and I believe the element of surprise is a lot of the power of this show, so I will try to be spoiler free.

This is a one to one show, which I know can make some people uncomfortable, but I can assure you nothing bad happens to you in this show, it's not awkward or embarrassing, you don't have to do much except sit there and count. It only last 10 minutes, so if you don't like it you don't have to endure long.

So you turn up at the venue, and it really is #IntoTheUnknown, the programme doesn't give much away, other than sitting on a bench is involved. Indeed you start the show sitting on the bench alone, apart from a technician operating the headphones you are given, but the next ten minutes are quite simple, but very powerful. In fact something happens in the last 10 seconds that is most likely to provoke a massive emotional response.

This is an incredibly clever piece of experimental theatre, well worth trying, and even if you don't like it, well you at least got to sit down for 10 minutes in your hectic Fringe day. But I do recommend taking a leap #IntoTheUnknown with this one.