Browse reviews

Edinburgh Fringe 2009

Umbrella Birds – Sketches in a Shop Changing Room

Avalon Productions

Venue: Assembly, George Street


Low Down

Cleverly written and characterised sketch comedy exploring a broad range of characters dashing in and out of the changing rooms in a clothes shop.


I think I’m allergic to shopping. On the rare occasions when the dearly beloved drags me screaming and kicking towards retail emporia, I always seem to play the role of the hovering husband, hanging around the changing area whilst madam squeezes her anatomy into something in which her bum does, frankly, look too big. The only fun part of the expedition is listening to the grunts, groans and mutterings as others put themselves through similar purgatory.

Emily Watson Howes has used this rich source of material for the 2009 Umbrella Birds show, setting it in the changing area of a shop. With her fellow Birds (Kate Donmall, Susanna Hislop and newcomer Fran Moulds), we meet a rich tapestry of characters as they try on potential purchases.   There is the wedding planner trampling over a young bride’s self-esteem, a pair of evangelical Christians speculating over the proximity of the second coming, a life artist exposing the pretentious nature of some modern art forms and Katrina, phoning everyone she has ever met, however briefly, to ask their opinion on a-symmetric tops. Whether Watson Howes is just having fun here or making a point that most conspicuous consumption brings only transient pleasure is not clear, but she does produce a poignant moment with a thoughtful sketch about a woman with a doll masquerading as a baby. The sex-obsessed (and starved) mother sharing tips with her cringing teenage daughter was beautifully played – why is it that embarrassing parents always seem to have voices like fog-horns? No wonder the teenager had kept her boyfriend out of sight of her mother for so long.
The writing plays cleverly on women’s obsession with their appearance as the characters twist and turn in front of the mirror trying to convince themselves that they really don’t need to try something two sizes bigger. But whilst we’ve moved on from the Mrs Slocombe’s and Miss Brahm’s portrayed by the BBC’s ‘Are You Being Served’, a lot more humour could have been wrung out of the assistant/shopper interaction. And although there were some amusing moments and funny one-liners, too many sketches simply petered out making this rather a curate’s egg of a show. 
Their two previous Fringe appearances centred on a portaloo and a gym where I recall much better use being made of the potential for observational comedy.   Nevertheless, this is a talented quartet who shape their characters well, offering convincing portrayals of people that are instantly recognisable and often extremely funny.