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Edinburgh & MTM Award Reflections

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The Musical Theatre Matters: UK Awards gala has been held, the gongs presented and I have safely managed to pack what feels like half a flat back into my rucksack and get onto the train back to London - at the moment we're just south of Newcastle.

I am hoping to use this blog to reflect on my Fringe theatre experiences, a personal debrief of sorts. First of all, between both the MTM: UK Award-nominated musicals and other shows I have seen over the past week and a half (somewhere between four and five most days in addition to events like the Fringe Society AGM on Saturday morning) I have taken in an incredible variety of performances.

Even between the individual musicals being judged there was a huge range and real ingenuity in the way productions harnessed the traditional ingredients of book, music and lyrics.

Some, such as Scary Gorgeous (which was awarded both Best Book and a prize for innovation) really did push what I would think of as the form of a musical, blending their trademark physical theatre with two interweaving and eventually meeting narratives.

The music element in the piece comes in the form of performances the two central characters give jointly fronting an impressive live rock band - the storytelling is not written into the songs themselves, but their tone and content add to the arc of the piece. More importantly, they enhance and articulate the developing relationship between the characters.

Chances are if you are a musical theatre fan you will have come across some variety of improvised show. Acts such as Showstopper!, a Whatsonstage.com favourite and a group who are in Edinburgh again this year, have worked tirelessly to bring this type of work to the mainstream. In a recent blog post for our Edinburgh microsite one Showstopper! veteran Sean McCann made reference to the genre needing its own section of the Fringe programme it has proliferated to such a degree.

I was lucky enough to catch Baby Wants Candy at Assembly at George Square last night who, across from America and taking the show briefly to London in September, are an ambitious and successful example of the improvised musical species, a four piece band corralled by an expert musical director into accompanying the songs centre stage, all elements being created totally on the fly.

Perhaps a more subtle illustration, but a piece of new musical writing I can only describe as beautiful and wonderfully simple, can be seen in Some Small Love Story. With a score from Gavin Whitworth, the musical director from improv musical producers No Shoes Theatre and a book by Alexander Wright of formidable York-based theatre collective Belt Up, the show combines two tragic stories of grieving men with music which genuinely invokes Jason Robert Brown.

Described by my colleague Theo Bosanquet in his review as an "undoubtedly mawkish" piece which sees "four talented young performers singing from the heart about romances that feel painfully authentic," the show takes the interesting step of sending the cast members to meet members of the queuing audience, asking them for tales of love and recollections of romance. These memories then pepper the dialogue of the performance, theatregoers seeing their own experiences referenced like a faint reflection on stage.

Last year was in Edinburgh for only five days of reviewing as the Fringe drew to a close. The show on everyone's lips when I arrived, helped greatly I suspect as the first thing I did on stepping of the train was attend last year's MTM: UK Award gala, was Fresher the Musical which picked up the 2010 Best New Musical prize.

I couldn't squeeze the show into my schedule last year, but took time to see the show on Monday, this year playing a late afternoon slot at the Pleasance Dome. I am reliably informed that in addition to a "Winner of MTM: UK Best New Musical" sticker on the show's poster, the piece has been recast and reworked slightly before its second outing.

It was really fantastic to see a show which works so well and which is lapped up by a Fringe audience building on the success of last year. All three aspects of Fresher just work, the comedy in the lyrics and book are given ample space to thrive in a varied score. The subject matter may not be everyone's cup of tea, there was certainly an interesting mix of expressions on the faces around me in the Queen Dome, but the piece achieves what it sets out to do and the strong cast certainly brought back memories of my Freshers festivities. The show is also getting the audience it deserves - it was completely packed when I saw in.

Another company who showcased their material superbly in their gala performance were In Shorts Productions whose production of Homemade Fusion was nominated in the Best Production category. The show is a song cycle of reflective and often comedic songs from writing duo Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond. When I saw the show in a C soco studio early last week a row of young performers sitting behind me started enthusing about the material and the performance the split second the lights came up.

As I made my way out I overheard cast member Christina Tedders referring one of the theatregoers to Kooman & Dimond's album Out of Our Heads which contains most of the numbers in the show in addition to others.

I had stumbled across the pair's iTunes download after delving down a new musicals rabbit hole spurred by a post on Ken Davenport's Producer's Perspective blog only a few days before. I can't recommend Out of Our Heads highly enough as a great addition to the iPods of the fellow Michael Bruce, Kerrigan & Lowdermilk, Scott Alan and Adam Gwon fans out there.

Finally, a note on the show which rather swept the board at this afternoon's ceremony winning the Best New Musical, Best Music and Best Musical Production prizes, From the Fire. Most of the New York-based company had returned home when the show finished its run at Zoo Roxy on 20 August. Although a small core of the cast as well as producer and director had stayed in Edinburgh and were able to collect their prizes, they were not able to recreate the work as a performance as part of the gala, instead being represented by footage shot during the run.

My heart normally fills with dread when someone says their live performance has been filmed, particularly on the Fringe scale, as it never does the piece justice. But even in the rough edit which was projected in the George Square Theatre, it was clear the footage had been elegantly shot and the music well recorded. It captured the show admirably. As short snippets of the garment factory workers' oratorios were shown, I again felt goosebumps start to rise, just as they had on live viewing.

- Andrew Girvan
Deputy Editor


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