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The Beta Males in... The Space Race
Published on Friday, 24 August 2012
4

4 stars

Pleasance Courtyard (venue website)
Comedy
1-13, 15-27 Aug, 5:45pm-6:45pm
Reviewed by Liam McKenna

 Recommended for age 12+ only.

There seems to be a resurgence of nostalgia for days of yore in comedy shows lately – although I make this sweeping generalisation based on only two shows. Maybe it’s just a love of rural English countryside quirkiness. Whatever the reason, I entered this dingy room to the sight of four Morris dancers flitting about, waving handkerchiefs in time to traditional accordion music. They pull up several audience members while people are still filing in. It has the air of a village fete about it, and sets the scene nicely.

We have entered Lower Birchley, a remote village somewhere in the West Country (judging by the thick accents and references to cider), closest neighbour: the unfortunate village of Upper Birchley. And beneath this unassuming bucolic idyll lies a secret laboratory, which hosts a government agency that plans to get a British man on the moon before anyone else. It is the sixties, after all. Anything could happen.

In the following hour we bear witness to a race. More precisely, a Space Race. At first it’s just against more dominant and technologically-advanced nations, but it soon becomes a race against time; a battle against an alien invasion. Initial plans falter as professor Brian Brilliance – by way of a handy projection that runs throughout and keeps the audience abreast with the plot – is seemingly blown to smithereens in orbit. “Oh no!” the scientists cry over-dramatically, time and time again, re-affirming, in case there were any niggling doubts, that this is not a serious drama about a failed attempt to get a British man to the moon before the Americans.

At the heart of the story is a pair of twins – one a farmer, the other an astronaut – who share their differences, and a good chunk of the plot is set around their relationship. Which of them, you wonder, will save the day? The cast of four switches seamlessly between a variety of vivid characters, and for the most part the end-products are distinctive as well as funny. A personal highlight is an angry chimp sent aboard a spaceship as a substitute for a medically-trained doctor – and watch out for the spoof Bond-style agent, with an endless reel of flashbacks triggering an abundance of aerobic exercise from the cast.

The Space Race is a well-oiled, fast-paced, comedy play. The Beta Males don’t just rely on quirky one-liners to see them through; there’s a great deal of good acting and mime too. Because of the minimalist concept, there are few props to engage with (apart from a series of failed spaceships and the odd lab coat) and so, with the help of some masterful sound effects, the audience is required to strain its imagination whole-heartedly. And in some cases – I’m referring here to an alien-possessed man decapitating a cow and wearing its head – I guess it depends how willing you are to conjure the mental image.

The show rarely hits a lull. But there is one section where the pace slows: an ambitious barbershop number, which goes on longer than you might be prepared for, and with the lead vocals lost below the oohing and ahhing. The flow is momentarily disrupted, though I must say they pick it up with some unexpected pitch-perfect harmonising towards the crescendo.

The Beta Males risk severe injuries for our entertainment; they warp their torsos into positions that would normally be saved for only the most experimental contortionists. At one point one member of the cast jokes (or not) he may have “seriously hurt his back three scenes ago.” But they never lose their composure, and any blips are well covered by some commendable ad-libbing. The story ends how you might expect it to following an alien invasion, where shaking hands becomes the most dangerous thing you could do… but there is still a neat twist, which may or may not have been protected by the Pentagon to this very day.

<< Ivo Graham and Liam Willi...   Towards the Moon >>

FROM OUR ARCHIVES

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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