Hitler’s Tasters – Greenside Infirmiry

Written by Michelle Kholos Brooks

Runs at Greenside Infirmary, August 5th – 24th (Not 11th or 18th), 18.35pm

Fifteen women would carry out, what they consider, a job of notoriety and honour during World War II. With the risk of assassination peaking, they would dine on the foods of the Third Reich, no steak of course. They were guinea pigs. A first-line of defence for the Fuhrer from his enemies attempts at ending his rule. They were Hitler’s Tasters.

Until 2012, there was no confirmation of their existence, when the final living member Margot Wölk spoke out. The production, billing itself as a dark comedy, reads more like a drama with comedic elements. It’s a fascinating concept, three women confined to a cinder-block room. Where boredoms, jealousy and illuminating ideas of American film stars set in.

Hitler’s Tasters has another, important message behind its historical tale. Its a look at the banality of evil, seamless triumph in stirring hate, and how gullible people are when requested by their President Fuhrer. Originating from the States, though entirely coincidental, the American voice hammers in transparent warnings we should recognise with 1930’s Germany.

There’s a trend of technology bleeding into a contemporary commentary. Selfies and Madonna were not the expected pass times of the women subject to this job. In a world of ‘insta-famous’, the decision to include phone-obsession for these women, who were still girls oversteps. The concept, the idea that they could be famous for their role in protecting the Fuhrer is an ingenious insight into young women’s influencer aspirations. The constant selfies over-stay their welcome though, belittling the weight of the production.

Here we have Hitler’s Tasters misstep. Dark comedy works at its best when paying respect to the subject. Comedy is the focus over story-telling. A shame, as Mary Kathryn Hopp, showcases a pathos, a genuine tear-building whenever the illumination of the guards bursts into the cell. The entire female cast has a tremendous sense of sisterhood, even when turning on one another.

With laughs, Michelle Kholos Brooks’ script misses the beat. Perhaps, at the risk of sounding pretentious, there’s a loss from their American audiences. For the UK, offence is a currency. A few moments are good jokes, punches which stir middle-class sniggers rather than bellyaches. Rushing pace, jokes don’t land as neatly as there’s a sense of sweeping it off the ground before causing insult.

Frustratingly, Hitler’s Tasters is a tweak from a contemporary, brass-neck smack at historical repression and the resurgence of political manipulation. As it stands, the ingredients lay on the counter – a starter awaiting a few more spices before serving the main course.

Tickets available from: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/hitler-s-tasters

Photo credit – Cody Butcher

Casanova – Festival Theatre

Choreographer: Kenneth Tindall

Original Scenario: Kenneth Tindall & Ian Kelly

Decadence and debauchery: terms that readily come to mind when thoughts turn to Giacomo Casanova. For many, this image is synonymous with adultery, womanising and sexual deviance. Instead, Kenneth Tindall’s adaptation for the Northern Ballet company’s production of Casanova offers a look at the passion, pain and grandiose lifestyle behind the name.

From the ensuing prologue until the closing grand ballabile, the strength, ferocity and talent of Northern Ballet is monumental. The memoirs of Casanova are often documented as one of the most insightful references into social practices of 18th century Europe. To condense twelve volumes into two hours is commendable, it charts Casanova’s ‘fall from grace’ during his early priesthood, through Venetian court to the birth of Casanova as the entertainer, gambler, adventurer and author.

Unlike more traditional ballets, there is no female lead. Instead, the company comprises ballerinas who play pivotal roles such as the Savorgnan sisters, who have the initial hand(s) in Casanova’s corruption. Rather, Tindall and Kelly have been clever in their use of the ballerinas, Bellino and Henriette, Casanova’s two major lovers, both masquerade as men, one out of necessity, the other fear.

The success of the story of Casanova is down, primarily, to Giuliano Contadini. From the entrée, Contadini makes an impression. His physical strength and delicacy are enviable. Commendable too is Contadini’s acting ability. Following an emotive and personal pas de deux with Hannah Bateman as Henriette, in which her affair is revealed to her husband, we witness Contadini’s visceral explosion of rage. From conventional light pieces with the sisters and Henriette to a more modern influence of heavily stylised symbolism with the monks, the range of movement is expansive, Contadini and the company rising to all challenges.

This precise movement only reaches such elevated visual heights with the help of complementary lighting, score and design. Indeed, to say that Christopher Oram’s work is awe inspiring, borders on simplistic. Combined with Alastair West’s lighting, what is generated is an ever-evolving atmosphere. Skeletal gowns of all shades, drape the dancers.

Oram’s costumes, used in tandem with the lighting, further instil a sense of wonder and depth. Penetrating bursts of red assault, quite suddenly, the darkness from the Head Inquisitor, then suddenly vanish into the blackness. Madame de Pompadour’s lavishness contrasts heavily with the bound chest of Bellino. What is achieved with these dissected costumes is a paradoxical balance between the majesty of 18th Century glamour stripped back to expose the technique and artistry of the ballet beneath.

Casanova is a production devoid of fault. It is a piece of sublime art, accessible to all and one that should be re-lived and shared.

Review originally published for Reviews Hub: https://www.thereviewshub.com/casanova-festival-theatre-edinburgh/

Production information: https://northernballet.com/casanova

Photos Guy Farrow, Emma Kauldhar, Caroline Holden, and Justin Slee.

Lauder – Festival Theatre Studio

Original Script by Jimmy Logan

Adapted by Jamie MacDougall & Kally Lloyd-Jones

Directed by Kally Lloyd-Jones

At one moment in history, Harry Lauder was the highest earning entertainer across the globe. He was the first British artist to amass the sale of over one million records. Following the loss of his son in the First World War, he also went on to raise vast sums for returning soldiers. For this, and much more, a knighthood was bestowed to (now) Sir Lauder in 1919, the first one for a performer of music halls.

The story of one of Scotland’s most successful singer-comedian, or as he would prefer minstrel, is a rich one to compact. With such a notable history, Jamie MacDougall tackles the role in a way that would without a doubt make the man himself proud.

MacDougall and director Kally Lloyd-Jones have adapted the original script by Jimmy Logan. Harry Lauder finds himself rehearsing backstage while a single solitary member of the press sits in the audience, offering questions. From this simple jumping point, we cover most of Lauder’s fascinating, star-studded life through dance, melody and nostalgia goggles.

True to the name of a minstrel, Lauder comprises itself around his music, with interjections of historical facts, gags and snippets of crowd japery. From his first pantomime performance of “I Love A Lassie” to the crowd-pleasing behemoth that is “Romain’ in the Gloamin”, a wealth of numbers are performed. Renowned for his voice, MacDougall’s vocals are without question impressive. Perhaps most remarkable is that the sheer force behind his voice is under tremendous control inside the smaller space of the Festival Theatre Studio. He tempers the intensity; we feel how much power is in MacDougall’s voice, and yet he exhibits a playfulness with the lyrics to fit with the tone.

While MacDougall’s vocals add his own touch to Lauder’s own distinct timbres, his characterisation is spot on; from facial expression to shifting his entire body to push for authenticity. It’s intimate theatre with a strong sense of an almost one on one conversation taking place before us. With the piano, along with his costume pieces on stage, MacDougall and Lloyd-Jones production benefits from the updating of Logan’s script. The video projections – chiefly of war-time documentary footage – are a pleasant touch but could have been utilised on a broader scale. Its use is sporadic, and its lost potential is evident during the costume changes.

Perhaps though, it may simply be desiring more of a good thing. The same is valid for the anecdotes MacDougall shares with us, which are just as sought after as the music. They’re infrequent to begin with, becoming more prevalent as Lauder reaches his semi-retirement. They make for the human insight to the man behind the sporran, MacDougall carrying them well. The news of his son’s passing, revealed in a telegram on New Year’s Eve is the poignant moment. One not used to milk emotion, instead, Lauder’s brief recollection leadings into the dedications and memories of Lauder’s son.

There are two groups of people who will sit with honest smiles, devoid of pretence. The first is children, experiencing something magical for the first time. The second, a crowd who are re-living that magic which would conjure happiness and see them through sorrowful times. Lauder is a wee smasher of a treat: big in performance, large in heart and enormous in character. So, before you depart – have a “Wee Deoch An’ Doris”for Sir Harry Lauder and this excellent portrayal courtesy of MacDougall.

Review originally published for Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/lauder/