Monthly Archives: August 2013

Edinburgh Fringe Review: No Names

This is probably about as good a zombie apocalypse you can do on a tight budget; with zombies represented entirely by sound effects, No Names is bleak, claustrophobic and darkly funny.

The play has exactly one setting – a room in an ordinary house – and two characters, a ditzy, optimistic woman and a survivalist man. Unfortunately, for a play that should be a character comedy, the characterisation is shallow. Of the two leads, only the survivalist has any real depth. His female companion is a ditzy stereotype.

It’s her self-evident stupidity that is the source of much of the humour, which is at odds with the grim setting. It’s sad, because then the jokes are suitably dark, they are funny and original – No Names has what must be the first ‘dead pug’ joke I’ve ever heard.

Despite my gripes, it’s a decent zombie story, with a few real twists along the way. Between this and Reginald Tanner, the other half of the zombie double bill, I’ll be sure to give any future Shiny New Theatre productions in Edinburgh a look.

No Names was a Shiny New Theatre production on at Cafe Camino until August 24th

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Edinburgh Fringe Review: The Brief Afterlife of Reginald Tanner

regThis might just be the most thoroughly British zombie story you’ll ever see – and for all it has flaws, The Brief Afterlife of Reginald Tanner is a very refreshing take on the genre.

Where most zombie stories are about the horror of loss of control and chaos, The Brief Afterlife of Reginald Tanner focuses on the precise opposite. A scientist devises a brilliant – but costly – way to bring the dead back to life. This leads almost at once to the appointment of a Minister of Mortality, the creation of a mortality tax, and yet more legislative and capitalist horrors.

The horror comes not from the zombie, poor ol’ Reginald Tanner, but from the government’s nastily realistic decision to, as they put it, ‘privatise death’. As a satire it is biting, but spectacularly unsubtle. There is no wriggle-room for interpretation here – nor is there really meant to be.

The lack of subtlety is the show’s biggest weak point. It is a production that is very certain of its own wittiness which is not always as witty as it tries to be. It spends a lot of time going into detail about the horrifying system being developed for reanimated corpses and little time on developing its – largely archetypal – characters.

Certainly a play with room for improvement – but for an entirely new twist on the zombie genre, one can put up with some flaws.

The Brief Afterlife of Reginald Tanner is a Shiny New Theatre production that was on at Café Camino at 8:45 until August 24th. 

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Edinburgh Fringe Review: Shattered!

With people in identical blue hospital gowns drifting about the room as the sound of a ticking clock echoes in the background, Shattered! creates from the outset a feeling of tension and discomfort. Each of its monologues focuses on a different mental health issue, from bipolar disorder to post-natal depression and alcoholism; each is dynamic, intense and relatable.

For all it is billed as ‘a raw and honest portrayal’, Shattered! has a sense of artificiality to it. It has a tendency to devolve into something more like PSA than theatre, with characters lecturing the audience on the important of mental health awareness rather than telling their stories.

An important message, certainly, but one that could be delivered with more subtlety. It’s all very well to encourage greater understanding of mental health, but the show’s climax becomes downright accusatory. The chances are the audience of a show all about mental health issues is already aware that they must be understanding – not to mention according to the statistics quoted in the show itself, it’s probable a number of them have personal experience.

Shattered! introduces an element of physical theatre into a genre that is traditionally static. This is much appreciated, but does sometimes become distracting. The ‘sound effects’ yelled out by the actors sometimes drown out the monologue; depending on where you are sitting the constant movement will probably block your view.

But for all its flaws Shattered! is a disquieting and sometimes captivating experience that will hold your attention for an hour. If you’re interested in issues of mental health, it’s probably worth your time.

Shattered! was on at Café Camino (venue 65) until August 24th.

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Edinburgh Fringe Review: Reaper Review

Some shows gain a lot from their venues. Reaper Review is performed in the bowels of Edinburgh, practically underground. The play’s setting is the underworld. It’s very appropriate and quite atmospheric.

A Grim Reaper’s innocent mistake has had catastrophic consequences – and so a demon has been summoned from head office to carry out a performance review. It’s a neat concept for a play, one that allows for unfolding drama as more and more details of the case are revealed to the audience, but also for a minimum of settings and characters – and for easy exposition.

Visually Reaper Review is simple, but striking. The web of documents and photos that makes up the backdrop is a compelling image. Little details like the manager’s rope tie and the click of the demon’s ‘hooves’ go a long way to create a sense of the underworld setting.

The comedy is strong – it certainly kept the audience laughing – though it does feel slightly like an elongated comedy sketch. Both dialogue and acting are, unfortunately, a little rough around the edges at times. It’s a play that could use some smoothing out.

Reaper Review seems throughout to be very secure in its own wittiness. It delights in dropping in details of afterlife bureaucracy – ‘third-level death engineer’ – all of which is well thought-out and entertaining, but not the most original. ‘The afterlife is a bureaucracy’ crops up on ‘Strange Horizons’ list of all-too-common SF tropes.

Wrinkles aside, Reaper Review is an enjoyable and skilfully executed bit of theatre, with some memorable characters and some good comedy – and quite different from most Fringe shows. Good fun.

 Reaper Review is a Never Heard of It production on at 1:45 every day until Sunday 25th at The Cowgatehead, as part of the PBH Free Fringe.


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Writing and Dreams

I moved into a new flat a few weeks ago. It’s by far the loudest place I’ve ever lived – I’m on a main road and the traffic noise is nigh-constant. I tend to be woken up around six and sleep only fitfully until a more reasonable hour.

An interesting side effect of my newly revised sleep schedule: I’ve been dreaming more than usual. The intense and weirdly emotional dreams I only have when I get woken up in the morning and can’t quite get back to sleep. The result being that this week I wrote what is only my third story based on a dream and I may write my fourth soon.

I suspect stories coming from dreams is much rarer than often supposed. It’s a very attractive idea. It goes neatly with the notion of stories leaping fully-formed from the heads of their writers. There’s no effort involved; stories just come to you while you sleep. It doesn’t happen that way. The few times I’ve written a dream, there’s been a lot of mental gymnastics needed beforehand to render the random images of my subconscious mind into a coherent narrative.

In fact, what I tend to get out of dreams – and what most writers seem to get out of dreams – is not so much narratives as emotions. Nightmares are an endless source of inspiration – Dracula and Terminator are both supposed to have been based on nightmares. Or you have cases like YU+ME Dream, one of my favourite webcomics, which was based on a dream full of romantic longing. You experience emotions that feel intensely real and want to try and capture them.

I would still say these are the exception, not the rule – but last night I had one of the most frightening dreams of my life and I’m a little worried I won’t be able to convey that fear through writing.

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100 Animated Films V: Stop-Motion Wonders

piratesPirates! In An Adventure with Scientists

Pirates has a lot to recommend it. It was made by Aardman animation – their first stop-motion film since 2005, their first to be filmed in 3D and (I believe) their first to extensively blend stop-motion with computer generated animation. The voice cast includes Hugh Grant, David Tennant, Imelda Staunton, Lenny Henry – all perfectly cast. Of the films on my list this was one of the ones I was most looking forward to.

I’m not sure how to verbalise what about this film I found lacking. The humour, animation and voice acting are all top-notch – it was something about the plot, which involves surprisingly little pirating and a lot of quite disparate elements drawn together. Aardman Animation excels at short films but their full-length films tend to be bitty – this, I think, is why their best films are Chicken Run and Arthur Christmas. Both could easily have been short films – but they’re better for the extra length and use it for character development rather than more plot and more gags.

On the subject of character development: Pirate Captain, our protagonist. Pirates! is a film which does something I hate: it attempts to create the illusion of character development through a montage of the main character being very sad. But has he actually changed in anyway, or learned anything? Do his crew forgive him for any reason other than ‘well, the script says so’? Not really, no. Sure, he’s trying to make things right, but more to get his crew to like him again than because he understands what he done wrong.

And also: dodos were large birds. They stood about a metre tall – ‘bigger than a swan’ was a common comparison. I keep my sanity by imagining that Polly the Dodo is a member of a previously unknown species of Dwarf Dodo from a smaller island – but perhaps I am giving the film-makers too much credit.

panicA Town Called Panic

I’m at a slight disadvantage here because I’ve never seen the TV series of the same name – and I get the impression A Town Called Panic is very much an extra-long episode. My only prior experience with A Town Called Panic  was the series of Cravendale Milk adverts made by the same people with more or less the same characters.

That said: I enjoyed A Town Called Panic very much. The animation, though simple, is distinctive and very clever; that the characters are all, essentially, toys, appeals to the child in me. The plot structure reminds me a little of an episode of The Simpsons: it begins with the other characters attempting to get a birthday present for Horse but then spins off into something completely different… and completely different again… and again.

The toy-like animation models plus the disjointed plot make for an experience something like watching a story made up by someone playing with toys – the village actually reminds me of the shoebox ‘towns’ I used to make for my dolls to live in. It costs along on its own odd internal logic, from the Arctic to the bottom of the ocean to the centre of the earth. I love that kind of story-telling.


I think the best summation of Frankenweenie I’ve seen so far is ‘more Tim Burton’. I think it might his most Tim Burton-y film to date. And I’m not actually dead keen on his style.

Still: Frankenweenie is a lot of fun, with some memorable characters and spot-on Hammer Horror pastiche. Victor’s relationship with the prophetically-named Sparky feels very real; it honestly hurts when the dog dies and Victor’s obsession with bringing him back to life is oddly touching.

That said, I feel like the film missed his own message. At the end of the film (spoilers!) Sparky dies again… but rather than just acknowledging that hey, dogs die sometimes, and moving on is important, Victor brings him back again – with the help of the townspeople, no less – and the film ends.

It’s not a very healthy message. How long does Victor intend to keep raising his dog from the dead when it dies? And given that he has now proven that it’s possible to raise the dead with sufficient electricity – how long is it before someone tries his trick on a dead family member? Sooner or later this world is going to have a Pet Semetary situation on its hands – or worse, a full-blown zombie apocalypse. Sure, the fact that most of the raised pets were monstrous should put most people off – but Sparky was just fine. For a desperate, grieving person with access to frequent lightning storms those would look like some pretty good odds.

Lots of ethical and metaphysical questions; not many answers. It’s a fun family film, but only if you don’t think too hard.


Based purely on the animation, Coraline is a masterpiece. It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating: this film is entirely stop-motion animated. There are no green-screen shots. The more you know about stop-motion, the more impressive it becomes – I’m still trying to wrap my head around just how you could create the climax in stop-motion. There’s effects that would likely be tricky to accomplish in CG. It holds a record for longest stop-motion film. Let’s all agree now: Laika are the masters.

Unfortunately, it has the same slight issue as Paranorman: the stop-motion is so good that if you didn’t know better you’d assume it was generic-looking CG. Aardman animation has always managed to avoid this by having such a distinctive stop-motion style that you couldn’t mistake it for anything else; Laika lacks this quality.

So what about the rest of the film? I’d say Coraline falls victim to what I’m going to dub the Thief and the Cobble dilemma. The Thief and the Cobbler is a tragically unfinished animated film made by Richard Williams. It was intended to be the greatest animated film of all time, and in some respects it would have been – check out this scene. But the plot and characters are uninspired and the Arabian Nights setting is about as heavily stereotyped as Disney’s Aladdin. How do you judge an animated film? By the animation or the content?

Not that Coraline is a bad film. It’s full of inventive and interesting plots and characters, but much of that it owes to its source material. If it had been made in CG animation I’d call it so-so: it’s enjoyable, creepy, Coraline is a strong and realistically child-like lead. It’s a great fairy tale – but again, it owes that to Neil Gaiman’s novella. I found the overall quality a little patchy; the last third or so devolves into a kind of video-game plot.

But it’s sure as hell not a bad film, even leaving aside the animation. It’s a rare female-led animated film children’s film that is not a romance (the only other such film released the same year was Dreamworks’ Monsters vs Aliens). It may be lacking in some areas – but it is definitely worth checking out.

Fantastic_mr_foxFantastic Mr. Fox

Oh, Roald Dahl. When will there be an adaptation of your work I actually like?

Fantastic Mr. Fox isn’t a bad film. Critically it was quite acclaimed. I enjoyed some of the deadpan humour and the music and it does get some parts of its source material down – Boggis, Bunce and Bean are done beautifully.

But Mr. Fox himself is not Fantastic. Not even a little. Some kind of vital essence or spirit of the character is missing. I’m not sure what it is – but he lacks the brilliance and dashing charm of his book counterpart. The constant deadpanning doesn’t help – it’s irritating and not very suitable for animation. This is a medium that needs more energy.

The animation itself doesn’t help either. The models have an eerie realism to them, disjointed movements, and creepy dead eyes. It’s not nice to look at, except in stills, and it’s not nicely shot – for some reason the film keeps cutting to close-ups. Close-ups of jerky, dead-eyed model faces. I don’t know who thought that would be a good idea – and it’s not that Wes Anderson isn’t used to working with animation, because he didn’t direct the stop-motion, just the voice actors.

Ultimately, my problem with Fantastic Mr. Fox is the same as my problem with many adaptions of children’s books: if there’s not enough source material to comfortably fill out a feature-length film, don’t make a feature length film. It’s really not that complicated. Some books are just better suited to short form – or to not being adapted at all.

Next: Studio Ghibli.

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Adventures in Novelling: Mapping

I’m reasonably certain we have Tolkien to thank for the importance of maps to fantasy novels. I suspect that Bilbo’s love of maps in The Hobbit is a little of the author slipping through, because all his books have one. Nowadays it’s a generally accepted fact that all fantasy novels must start with a map – preferably an ornate and beautiful one. The Discworld books now have a map, which must be bought separately (I own it, even though its existence is someone mind-bending considering the flexible nature of the Discworld). A few years back a Star Wars atlas was published.

In a sense, maps are important to fantasy. See, for instance, this map put out by the BBC to accompany Merlin, which is laughably bad: it’s improperly scaled, with landmarks from the first season dotting it almost at random. It’s the worst kind of fantasy map. And wouldn’t you know, Merlin is not good fantasy. It’s next to impossible to map Albion because no-one seems to have bothered to keep track of basic things like what kingdoms border Camelot, what they are called, and even whether Albion is Great Britain or not.

In conclusion: mapping is important. It’s one of my favourite past-times. I have maps that aren’t related to any story I’ve written.  I have maps for both the novels I’m working on and I’m in the process of making more. But I have no intention of including any of them with the story. They’re not for readers. They’re for me.

They’re for making sure I know where things are in relation to each other and tracking the movements of characters. They’re for making sure I know what the world is shaped like so I don’t get lost. And not just the world, either – I spent some time this week drawing floorplans of houses. At some point I need to map out the town where book two of the Everpresent Trilogy is set and I am dreading it.

But it has to be done. And let’s be honest: environment mapping is a great way to procrastinate on actually writing.

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