“Peer Gynt: A Jazz Revival”, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Greenside @ Nicolson Square – Lime Studio
20:50 hrs: 55 minutes
Aug 16, 18, 22, 24, 26 

15 August 2023 

Jeremy Malies in Edinburgh 

**** Four-star review 


In Willy Russell’s 1980 play Educating Rita the title character is asked to write an essay in which she must give solutions to the problems encountered by stage directors when presenting Ibsen’s Peer Gynt whose plot stretches from a Norwegian mountain to a North African desert. Rita writes a one-line essay: “Do it on the radio!” 

If only Rita (presumably ageless since she is a fictitious character) could come along to Nicolson Square. The solution is obvious. Put a member of the company on the edge of the stage with an overhead projector and dozens of acetate sheets illustrating the myriad locations visited by the hero.  

A TiKTok video says that the company, Cambridge-based Phonofiddle!, had a budget of £50. There have been no such limits on their creative imagination however as three actors and a remarkable pianist (who does a bit of acting himself in a cabaret scene) steer us through this epic. 

I lost count of how many instruments they all played (one of the actors also has a turn on piano) and the project reminded me of Dutch total football in which any outfield player can take over the role of any other player in the team. Everybody on stage including the pianist and the acetate handler can act well and the level of multi-tasking is prodigious. The contemporary label of “gig theatre” barely covers these levels of virtuosity and spontaneity. 

The drawn stage backgrounds (their mainpulator even animates them occasionally with sticky plastic and strands of wool) are deliberately crude but have perspective and are evocative, the most memorable being the Great Sphinx of Giza. (His merit is simply being himself intones Peer.) 

Hardly for a moment does anybody in the cast take themselves seriously and that is the principal delight here in an evening I enjoyed enormously. The £50 budget has been spent on the acetates, the famed recasting ladle and some fairy lights which form the eyes of the mountain trolls. A naked bulb serves as the lighthouse that does not prevent Peer from being shipwrecked. 

God does not play dice at least not with men we are told. If the message here is not to take chances, then the production team have cheerfully ignored it. The multiple instrument and costume changes took place almost next to me in the wings as I sat in the front row. Much could have gone wrong but the stagecraft was smooth and the epic but poignant quality of Ibsen’s text survives because the creative team, despite their fresh approach, remain attuned to it. “My empire was here all along!” is Peer’s verdict when he returns to Norway and is calmed by a lullaby. 

Much hinges on the piano compositions which are jazz versions of songs from the Peer Gynt Suite by Ibsen’s compatriot and contemporary Grieg. They were created by the company. The jazz involves an intricate game of cat and mouse with the original melodies and has such a freshness that you might suppose it was improvised.  

This project embodies the very essence of the original Edinburgh spirit and deserves transfers to events such as the Brighton Fringe and the Latitude Festival.