They got Seoul
Assembly's second Korean Season is an impressive revelation of the country's cultural talents
Shows from South Korea have been coming to the Fringe for years, but this year marks the second outing of an official Korean Season at Assembly. A showcase of the country's diverse theatrical talents, 2016's Korean programme spans dance, magic, music, physical theatre and slapstick comedy, all across five energetic shows.
The biggest is Chef, which some eagle-eyed Fringe-goers may recognise as having visited the festival in 2010. This version of the non-verbal performance – which has been a long-running hit in the South Korean capital, Seoul – has been revamped, and it's a lively mish-mash of world class beatboxing, first rate breakdancing and zany fun and games. Ideal family entertainment at the Fringe, no matter what language you speak.
Created by veteran Korean director Chul Ki Choi (who's previously brought Cookin' and Jump to the Fringe), there is – as the title suggests – a food-theme running through it. Two teams of chefs compete to create the best dishes, with a little help from audience volunteers, and in the final round an audience member gets to decide which team wins by tasting the traditional Korean rice dish bibimbap – the Green Chef's team or the Red Chef's.
I was lucky enough to see Chef in Seoul (where it's called Bibap: Delicious Musical) on a trip organised by the Korean Season team earlier this summer. Speaking to the cast and crew after the show, they insist they've never heard of long-running BBC cookery show Ready, Steady, Cook (which also pits a green team against a red one), so the choice of team colours is apparently just a coincidence.
Unlike that show, no actual cooking goes down here (though the final audience volunteer does get to taste real bibimbap); instead, expect skilfully farcical routines with fake food and kitchen equipment, all soundtracked by two world class beatboxers, and plenty of opportunities to take part in the fun. At one point in the Korean version of the show, the audience gets pelted with pillows of dough, which you get to gleefully throw back on stage. There's a strong gaming atmosphere to proceedings too: the two female characters may first appear stereotypical (they're labelled 'Sexy Chef' and 'Cutie Chef'), but they occasionally break out into fits of uncontrolled and well choreographed rage, creating a winningly silly tone that's part Hello Kitty, part Mortal Kombat.
In Seoul, the Chef team occasionally plays up to five performances a day, two for the public and an additional three for school outings. But when I joke that Edinburgh (with only one performance a day) will be a 'break' for them, they disagree: the additional slog of flyering and promoting your show makes things more exhausting, but exciting too. Whether the gloriously batshit antics of Chef will win over Fringe audiences is yet to be seen, but with the 300-seater George Square Theatre at their disposal, they've got a great arena to play to.
Elsewhere in the Korean Season, there's Singsing Bathtub and Fernando, The Space Elephant, a musical show for kids age four and up that's won awards in Korea for its heartwarming tale of friendship and interstellar travel. For its Edinburgh run, it's being translated into English. Binari also joins the bill; told through the Korean tradition of 'gut', it uses masks, songs and dance to tell the story of a woman who dies alone without feeling any resolution in her life. And if you were at the Edinburgh International Magic Festival last month, you might have caught a few of the performers in SNAP at the Magic Gala; in this Fringe offering, eight illusionists showcase a variety of tricks and feats, with plenty of humour thrown in as well.
The fifth show in the Korean Season this year is Tago: Korean Drum II. Note the number at the end – if you were at the Fringe in 2011, you might remember Tago's first outing which involved a cast of several dancers and drummers. This year's show has been stripped back to just seven drummers, but it's just as loud and more powerful. I caught a sneak preview in Seoul and, even in the unadorned confines of Tago's rehearsal space, it's an onslaught of primal beats and mesmerising dance that drips with the charm of its sensational performers. This team, who practice 12 hours a day, make some their own instruments and have decades of drumming experience behind them – one of them has even played in the Edinburgh Tattoo. It's a smooth combination of traditional and contemporary rhythms and choreography that displays – alongside the other shows in the season – just how much artistic talent Korea is bringing to the festival this August.
Chef: Come Dine With Us, Assembly George Square Theatre, 6–29 Aug (not 15), 4pm, £12.50–£14.50 (£10.50–£12.50). Previews 4 & 5 Aug, £8.50.
Singsing Bathtub and Fernando, The Space Elephant, Assembly George Square Studios, 6–29 Aug (not 15, 22), 12.15pm, £10–£11 (£8–£9). Previews 4 & 5 Aug, £7.
Binari, Assembly Hall, 6–29 Aug (not 22), noon, £12–£13 (£11–£12). Previews 4 & 5 Aug, £8.
SNAP, Assembly George Square Theatre, 6–29 Aug (not 15), 1.20pm, £12–£14 (£11–£13). Previews 4 & 5 Aug, £7.
Tago: Korean Drum II, Assembly Hall, 6–29 Aug (not 17), 2.55pm, £12–£13 (£11–£12). Previews 4 & 5 Aug, £8.