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Review: Two Ladders Production's "Embassy Stomp"

During the past year and a half, many of us have regarded the prospect of live theatre as something of a remote fever dream, a relic of the past only half-heartedly resurrected over zoom and livestream. For the team behind “Embassy Stomp,” however, this bleak period of uncertainty and unstructured time presented itself as the perfect opportunity to form their own production company: Two Ladders. The high-spirited farce, whose cast and crew is comprised of both current St Andrews students and alumni, premiered at this year’s miraculously in-person Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Shows were performed from the 6th to the 14th of August at the Space triplex.

The plot is, by design, nothing new; a carefully intentioned blend and subversion of convention lends itself as a vessel to extreme physical comedy and mime. This is not to discount clever timing and consistently witty dialogue, and—as advertised—the show is an expertly crafted ‘pastiche of British Second World War morale-boosting thrillers,’ but the storyline nevertheless takes a backseat. Fortunately, the company veers away from a complete reliance on the parodic for laughs, technique overshadowing any potential slippage into the formulaic and cliché. Occasional breaks of the fourth wall, a character at one point exclaiming in hurried panic that there are only ten minutes left in the play, suggest that the piece was devised in self-conscious lightheartedness.

Refreshingly, the principal highlight of the show is writer/director/clown duo: Ed Polsue and Harrison J. Roberts. The pair spends the full 50-minute duration of the play in constant transformation, taking on multitudinous accents and assuming the forms of German spy, butler, milkman, and naval base officer with a particular detestation for the Germans, among others. Roberts, in particular, commits to each ephemeral role with staggering force. His personal breed of comedy can be described as nothing if not unrelenting, but delightfully so.

The effectiveness of the fast-paced script which gives “Embassy Stomp” its fluidity and a certain illusion of ease is a testament not only to the talent of the ensemble and crew, but to the established dynamics between Polsue, Roberts, and Producer Ellie Hope—the team having worked together on a variety of projects whilst at St Andrews, including “One Man Two Guvnors,” “Blind Mirth,” and “Forbidden Fruit.”

Though the shapeshifting ‘clowns’ carry the piece, it is a true ensemble project, the four-player cast functioning synchronously. Lydia Milne as Vivienne Averley, a charming and notorious German sympathiser, and Louis Wilson as English war-correspondent Tommy De Villiers and, briefly, Count Horoch Zadelski, a fleeing Polish publisher, provide a dryer, unflinchingly straight-faced layer of comedy, as well as a moment of tangential romance. Milne and Wilson are endearingly sober in these roles, and their pacing and presence are equally commendable.

A slow-motion motor-car sequence, fake wind conjured up through the manual flailing of a paper scarf, and carefully choreographed steps all contribute to a precisely executed absurdity. Though the actor’s bodies are instrumental in setting the scene, the cast uses a select few objects to suggest and influence their surroundings, the inventive use and re-use of the stage’s minimal props contributing to a sense of freshness and aesthetic dynamism, all set against the backdrop of a makeshift black box theatre. Pieces of poster-board are used to denote a scene's location, while a simple trunk, adorned with an eclectic set of stickers functions as piano, table, and lift. A plank of wood with two drinking glasses fastened to its surface proves equally versatile. Sound effects also hail chiefly from the actors themselves, but there are a few moments of music interspersed sparingly which bear no hindrance to cohesion.

Through the implementation of stylised movement, expressive facial acting, minimal set and props, and speedy costume changes, the piece is simultaneously evocative of classic slapstick, the corporeal mime of Étienne Decroux, and Steven Berkoff’s total theatre. In such a compact, intimate setting, with both performers and viewers returning to the theatre after such a prolonged absence, the original piece feels particularly personal and vibrant. At the Thursday night performance there was a palpable and sustained audience engagement, which I can only imagine was present each night of the nine-day run. Brief and—for a war piece no less—frothy in tone, Two Ladders Productions has managed to produce what is a thoroughly enjoyable Fringe debut, fiercely in the spirit of the festival and, indeed, the St Andrews comedic community. ‘And I,’ Wilson, as Count Horoch Zadelski cries near the opening of the play (in reference to the English language, but nonetheless,) ‘learned it in St Andrews!'

Photo: Two Ladders Productions

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