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Carnival of Crows
Published on Thursday, 23 August 2012
4

4 stars

Laughing Horse @ The Free Sisters (venue website)
Theatre
3, 5-10, 12-17, 19-24 Aug, 1:30pm-2:20pm
Reviewed by Will Howard

 Free and unticketed. No pre-booking required.
 Recommended for age 16+ only.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by horror films; mainly by the pleasure the viewer derives from being confronted with representations of the darkest depths of humanity (and having their underoos scared clean off as a result). It was this fascination that led me to see Carnival of Crows. It proves to be a fairly archetypal example of the genre at the Fringe – what with its reliance on disturbing the audience rather than outright shocking them, its use of Gothic, Grand Guignol influenced imagery, and its rather destructive relationship between the performer and the fourth wall. Yet Carnival of Crows defies most “Horror” productions on this year’s Fringe, by being properly, sensationally good from start to finish.

Admittedly, it doesn’t have the world’s most original premise. Molly Beth White (a lot more on her later!) plays Poppy, an assistant to Edward, the sinister ringmaster of a travelling carnival. The production features a monologue about the different acts in the carnival, intertwined with Poppy’s own story, centred on her relationship with Edward and her best friend Virginia. It’s a pretty basic story presented in a surreal, slightly disjointed manner, but it works very well within the aesthetic.

Not everyone enjoyed the production quite as much as I did; indeed I saw an audience member walking out (not that unusual at a free show), muttering something about it not being scary. Well, no, it’s not. Not on the surface at least. It’s a lot more cerebral than that, requiring the audience pay close attention to keep up; anyone not interested in dark comedy, physical performance and gothic theatre need not apply. If you tick those boxes, however, I can’t recommend this production enough… and most of the reason for that is the aforementioned Molly Beth White, who is utterly sublime.

It goes without saying that she has an awful lot of responsibility going into this: she stands on stage playing an unreliable narrator telling seemingly random stories about grotesque happenings in a carnival, and asking the audience to care about it. Not many people could pull this off, but White does so in spades. She embodies every facet of Poppy stunningly, especially her mix of worldliness and profound innocence; and she manages to create whole characters using nothing but the most basic of objects, like Edward, who spends most of the production as a hat and a voice. Maybe her character’s a bit too Tim-Burton-esque for some, and maybe her “fragile urchin who’s seen too much” shtick is a cliché, but she recovers from any doubts by the way she defines her character through movement. She even makes a tap dance threatening. No, I’m not kidding. It’s awesome!

The one flaw in the production might be that it feels a little ambitious for a free show, with the obvious technical limitations that brings. Given a bigger budget, some of the effects would have come off ten times more effectively than they actually do. For example, an unconvincing puppet makes the payoff on a shiver-inducing tale of a mute little girl almost alienating, when it should have been a horrifying high point of the play. And the Three Sisters doesn’t have nearly enough lighting to do the production justice.

It doesn’t ruin the experience by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s a feeling of potential unfulfilled. However, this is a great place for a budding theatre company to be; outrageously talented but hamstrung by budget and venue, an excellent show with the promise of even better things to come. Just don’t go in expecting jump scares and cheap shocks. You’ll find those in bad films; this is something else entirely, and I loved it. If you’re a fan of what I’ve detailed above, so will you.

<< Assassins   A Clockwork Orange >>

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These are archived reviews of shows from Edinburgh 2012.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.

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