Eighth Grade – Edinburgh Filmhouse

Directed and Written by Bo Burnham

United States/ 2018/94 minutes

In the eighties, John Hughes was ruler supreme of the comedic coming-of-age drama. In the nineties, we took a shot at (loosely) adapting classic literature or gross-out humour in an attempt to capture teenage angst in middle-class America.

With social media’s talons reaching just around the corner into the Millenium, quite often we now turn to a discovery of ‘self’ at an earlier age for the recent coming-of-age narrative. Starting on YouTube, writer/director Bo Burnham’s directorial debut Eighth Grade has a confident helm. It tackles anxiety, consent and mental health for Generation Z, though you’ll find it communicates wider.

Kayla is your typical 13-year old. She struggles with fitting in, trying to emulate her favourite online stars and spends too much time focusing on how others identify her. Eighth Grade has a simple premise, something it shares with the better coming of age dramas. We’re merely taken on a journey as Kayla moves into high school, encountering social media-anxiety, popularity, mental health and the concerns of consent.

Never has it been easier to identify with an American pre-teen girl, a sentence I thought I would only say once this week. There’s buzz circulating Elsie Fisher, upon watching Eighth Grade there’s little wonder why. Earning her a nomination for best-supporting actress in a musical or comedy at the Golden Globes, Fisher is what makes this film. Wholly natural in performance, she doesn’t allow the melodrama to phase her. Every minor issue in her life we can relate too, and vitally, her response. The searing agony she captures without over-stating the emotion is tremendous.

Capturing authenticity poses a danger to your narrative because reality can be dull. Burnum achieves balance for the most part, though the film finds itself dipping into exaggeration drama than that of a comedy. Which, for the most part, only peaks in the latter half of the film. Any scene with awkward-father of the year Josh Hamilton is where comedy peaks. Hamilton’s performance makes you want to call home and apologise for being a little shit growing up. The chemistry he and Fisher share is heartwarming, the two complimenting the other’s performance.

Owing to his time on YouTube, Burnham has experience in providing an excruciatingly accurate depiction of self-gratification in an image-driven pursuit of identity. From the subtle to the obvious, the film has an aesthetic similar to Hughes but finds its own identity in placing snippets of authenticity alongside basis. As Kayla pushes her viewers to be comfortable with their bodies, we see her own discomforts in the background.

As Burnham’s featural directorial debut, it shows, though not necessarily in a negative way. Sticking to the traditional three-act structure of set-up, conflict and eventual payoff/happy ending, it’s a clean, neat story which doesn’t take too many risks. It adheres closely to the safe territory in places, particularly with one-note love interests and predictable happy-endings. Where Burnham pushes a grittier turn has a significant effect due to its contrast with the mundane nature of life. These sinister turns, while fleeting, work well with Anna Meredith’s deep bass electronic soundtrack.

Burnham’s outing shows great promise for more, as does Fisher’s performance. Where the film plays itself by the books, it’s following the footsteps of game-changers. Where it decides to find its identity, it succeeds. The authenticity of Eighth Grade will ring true for a generation or two. It’s awkward, downright cringy relatability hits close to the bone. It sits as a fitting tribute to coming of age stories from the past, captures excruciatingly accurate depictions of anxiety to captivate us.

Review originally published for Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/eighth-grade/

A Joke – Assembley Rooms

Image contribution: Universal Arts

Written by Dan Freeman

This review was part of the 2018 Edinburgh Festival Fringe

How does the classic go again? An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman (via the Atlantic) walk into a bar, or was it an island? A health clinic, no, it was a crashing plane, wasn’t it? Regardless, Dan Freeman’s A Joke navigates us through the construct of a joke, but more so life. An absurdist piece where humour is born grows, evolves and yes, sadly dies. Much more than this though, Freeman’s text talks to us more about our attitudes towards the pairing of life and humour. 

An empty canvas, nothing more than some furniture covered in sheets, and the stage is set. The real attraction here is our cast, three exponentially gifted performers all of whom deliver stellar performances. Sylvester McCoy’s charismatic Irishman serves as the ideal go-between for Robert Picardo’s American – but 57 times removed Scotsman – and The Englishman portrayed by John Bett, the latter delivering consistent eruptions from the audience. Together their chemistry is faultless, ricocheting off one-another sublimely.

In the pale crispness of the betwixt world they inhabit, the three have nothing to debate but their own existence. They struggle with the (lack of) reality of the situation, questioning if they are denizens of a joke, a story or indeed the final punchline: death. The play’s gradual climb is satirical. Like any decent joke, it begins jovially but steadily takes a more serious, darker tone, even if it becomes more convoluted in its approach.

So, who is the joke truly on? Certainly not the audience. These are three accomplished artists of their medium giving it their all. A Joke is rather akin to the infamous Aristocrats joke, a joke which is notoriously lengthy, twisting and turning and revealing that the real enjoyment isn’t from the eventual gag, but from the journey.

Review originally published for The Skinny: https://www.theskinny.co.uk/festivals/edinburgh-fringe/theatre/a-joke-assembly-rooms

Avenue Q – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Image Contribution: Matt Martin

Music and Lyrics: Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx

Director: Cressida Carre

We’re back on Avenue Q, running for fifteen years the street is still offering up an evening of filth, wickedness and yet holds a mirror up to its audience more than ever. Just when you thought bright colours and puppets were for kids, Avenue Q proves that nothing is as it seems.

Just what can you do with a BA in English? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for the past three years… For Princeton, a fresh-faced and bushy-tailed graduate, he wanders into Avenue Q in search of his purpose. It’s a peculiar street with friendly faces, some furry and other childhood stars. Meeting Kate Monster, Princeton finds his goals in life share a track with love. Unable to balance the two, a pair of bad idea bears drive him down the wrong path.

An issue with ‘edgy’ humour is that with age It tends to dull. Namely with references to childhood stars of the 80s such as Gary Coleman, who worked as a gag in the 2000s but a current audience has a weaker connection with the actor. In steps Nicholas McLean who portrays Gary in a more energetic performance than past touring productions. It offers rejuvenation to an otherwise tired character. Who does seem to suffer is Brain, a jobless aspiring comedian. Oliver Stanley is perfectly adequate, Brian is already the weakest written part, but he just lacks an oomph required.

There is no doubt that Avenue Q’s crucial selling points are still as impressive as they were 16 years ago. First, it’s slapped up and intoxicated version of Sesame Street puppets. They wouldn’t look out of place on a Saturday morning, through Rick Lyon’s design, they all have an individual personality. In particular the Bad Idea Bears. Those fuzzy inner voices who harmlessly tell us to have one more drink or to treat ourselves. Megan Armstrong and Tom Steedon do a sinfully wonderous job of breathing life to these imaginary tempters.

Besides its puppets, what gives Avenue Q longevity is its soundtrack by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. Covering power ballads, catchy tunes and perverted showstoppers. The touring cast does an admirable job delivering the numbers, with Steedon and McLean bringing their A-game as Trekkie and Gary Coleman. The Internet is For Porn and Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist still bringing grins to the crowd’s eyes years later. It is Cecily Redman as the downhearted Kate Monster with the tragically underrated There’s a Fine Fine Linewho moves the audience from laughter to genuine heartache.

With emotions clear, there is an issue with projection. Redman herself being able to belt out Peggy Lee inspired notes from Lucy the Slut but tails off on the bolder notes from Kate Monster. Her voices for the two are enjoyable, particularly for Lucy bringing in a husky sultry vibe. Lawrence Smith has just as grand a time with Princeton and Rod. When on stage with Redman, the two are giving it their all with You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want.

Does it still cut as deep? Not really. Is it still deep enough to leave a mark? Definitely. Avenue Q was once the filthiest show in the West End and Broadway, now it’s spreading that muck across the nation. It’s raunchy, still hilarious and contains a few surprise emotional moments with some poignant commentary of racism, purpose and reality.

Review Originally Published for Reviews Hub: https://www.thereviewshub.com/avenue-q-kings-theatre-edinburgh-2/

Tickets available from Capital Theatres: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/avenueq