Fringe reviews: Good Old Days, James and Jamesy and more

Day 4's highlights included Michael Ross Albert's timely new play and a surprisingly moving clown show by two Fringe faves

Fringe reviews: Good Old Days, James and Jamesy and more
Cass Van Wyck (left) and Brianna Wright try to get back to the Good Old Days. Photo by Aaron Hall

It's difficult to summarize Michael Ross Albert's haunting play Good Old Days (Rating: ✭✭✭✭). On the surface, it's about two estranged friends and former roommates who abruptly reunite one night in the apartment they once shared, fight again, part for good, then chase each other across a city.

✅ = Critic's pick / ✭ or ✭✭ = didn't work for me / ✭✭✭ = recommended / ✭✭✭✭ = excellent / ✭✭✭✭✭ = outstanding, among best of the year

But like any fine play, it's got hidden depths beneath the narrative. It seems to be about hope, healing, connection and finding a sense of awe and wonder in a world that can seem irreparably broken. In other words, it basically speaks to the moment we're in right now.

On a cold July night, Alison (Brianna Wright) is stuck in the city without her bag and a way to get back to her husband and suburban life. Her phone has power, but the network seems to be down (does that sound familiar?). And so, using the spare key she's kept, she lets herself into the apartment she once shared with Wendy (Cass Van Wyck), hoping to reconcile. Wendy wakes up, wielding a hammer. Things do not go well.

Albert drops clues about what caused the rift in the women's friendship – something that will likely be resolved by the end. He also suggests the respective low points the two currently find themselves at – something that could be clarified a bit more (the opening scenes, in retrospect, feel disorienting).

The play really kicks into gear once the two former friends are separated. Individually, they traverse the city, encountering strangers (played by the other actor) who have their own obsessions.

These include everything from a jaded, hipster bartender and a Bible-quoting ambulance driver (both played by Wright) to a desperate mother and a drunk patron at a party (Van Wyck). The way Albert crafts these exchanges is fascinating; they often begin well – two people sharing a bond – only to end in arguments. The stranger will often drop a word or name that reminds the other of their estranged friend. And the two gifted actors create these secondary characters in quick, sharp strokes.

Director Jill Harper's production is stunning, enhancing the surreal, dreamlike feel – After Hours meets Last Night. Denyse Karn's set consists of stacks of moving, moveable boxes on which subtle projections suggest where we are on this night-time odyssey. The placement of a big glowing orb often representing the moon helps orient us (scene transitions are beautifully subtle) and Zach Parsons's compositions also underscore the mood.

You're unlikely to see a better crafted or produced play this Fringe. And with a little tweaking, it would make a fine addition to any theatre company's regular season.

One Four One Collective's Good Old Days continues at Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace until July 16. See info here.

Photo by Leif Norman and Aaron Malkin

James and Jamesy's impressive clown turn

Hilarious comic duo and Fringe favourites James & Jamesy return this year with James & Jamesy: Easy as Pie (Rating: ✭✭✭✭), a clown-based show that goes to some unexpectedly poignant places.

The pair – outfitted in colourful costumes (by co-writer Alastair Knowles and Kevin Maguire) that seem like a Tartan Shoppe has been invaded by a Wonder Bread package – start out wanting to execute a classic pie-in-face gag.

So the id-like Jamesy (Knowles) attempts to surprise the more organized and anal-retentive James (co-writer Aaron Malkin) with a whipped cream pie in the noggin. As the two mimic going up and down escalators and opening doors that aren't there, Jamesy just can't manage to land the pie on James's face.

It turns out, after some brilliantly staged physical comedy involving the two of them entering James's brain, that the taller clown is subconsciously avoiding being pie'd. He has some pie-related trauma that goes back years. And so, as good friends do, they gently, amusingly go back to that event and attempt to heal the wounds.

The result is beautifully directed (by co-writer David MacMurray Smith) first-rate physical comedy, enhanced by co-writer Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski's clever score, that touches the heart as well as the funny bone.

"James & Jamesy" - Easy as Pie continues at the Factory Mainspace until July 12. See info here.

Julian Ford (left) and Chris Gibbs in Dead End. Photo by Marla Minshall

Dead End is worth a visit

Unless you've got a massive cast and an elaborate set, the big, wide Al Green Theatre is a difficult, rather unforgiving venue for a play.

Michael Posner's chamber mystery Dead End (Rating: ✭✭✭) has neither of those things, so it's a testament to his skill as a writer and Briane Namisok's direction that the production works as well as it does.

✅ = Critic's pick / ✭ or ✭✭ = didn't work for me / ✭✭✭ = recommended / ✭✭✭✭ = excellent / ✭✭✭✭✭ = outstanding, among best of the year

In the English countryside, realtor Reg (Julian Ford) is showing a property to a couple named Lil (Cara Hunter) and Kevin (Chris Gibbs), who are hoping to break into the market. (I suppose that explains why it's not set in Toronto.)

While going over the details of the house, Reg reveals that his wife has gone missing. Does it have something to do with this house? And are Lil and Kevin now in possible danger?

It's rare to see a genre like mystery and suspense on the stage – unless it's summer stock. And Posner has concocted an engaging, twisty tale.

True, there's a lot of exposition to get out of the way at the beginning, and frankly it seems unlikely that the couple wouldn't want to roam around the house before settling down with the realtor to discuss details.

But Posner and Namisok give us enough details to keep us intrigued. Why is the irritable, boorish Kevin so suspicious of Reg's motives from the start? And why does Reg keep getting phone calls from his adopted son, Lance?

The actors are excellent, especially after the plot has gone through a few twists and turns and we see what they're hiding.

I only wish we were watching the play in a more intimate venue. The Annex Theatre (unused this Fringe), with its dual staircases and second floor, would have been absolutely perfect.

Great Untold Stories inc's Dead End continues at the Al Green Theatre until July 16. See info here.

Jonathan Wilson (left) and Ryan Russell connect Inside. Graphic design by Russell

Inside feels incomplete

At perhaps 40 minutes, Sky Gilbert's Inside (Rating: ✭✭) could be an intriguing first half of a two-act play. But as is, it doesn't yet feel complete.

Tom (Jonathan Wilson, who's also starring in another show at the Fringe) appears to be stalking adult film star Ryan Russell (playing a version of himself). Tom says he's not gay, but he's been obsessing about the man ever since he saw a film in which the actor delivered a monologue about wanting a man inside him. Tom believes he wants that, too. And so he approaches Russell to talk about it more.

It's an intriguing set-up, but Gilbert hasn't given either actor much to do. There seem to be digs at the therapy and wellness industry; Tom is seeing multiple therapists, and one of them has suggested to him he might have gender issues. Despite the thin plot, we don't get any insights into the adult film industry.

Russell exudes a cocky, jaded air that feels authentic, if overly rehearsed. Wilson, his line readings capturing Tom's uneasy state of mind, creates a fascinating portrait of a confused, nervous man who genuinely wants some answers to what he's been feeling.

Those answers don't come – perhaps they could be explored in a second act – but one bonus is seeing a new short film by performance artist/filmmaker Keith Cole, whose work in any context is always a treat.

Inside-on-the-Run Productions' Inside continues at the Tarragon ExtraSpace until July 16. See info here.