August 25, 2015 § Leave a comment
Here are the shows I saw at Edinburgh Fringe this year, and what I thought of them. Two main reviews are followed by ten mini-reviews.
Liberation by The Alchemist Theatre Company
In Liberation, five performers, stark naked, through dance and elements of mime, create a poetic allegory about human existence, and the possibility of rebelling from society’s demands. A young woman is born, taught to be ashamed of her nakedness, clothed (with paint), and soon brought in line with pre-ordained ways of interacting: how to eat properly, how to work properly, how to love properly, how to be properly. These ways of being are wrong, shallow, meaningless. We know that, because the narrator tells us so as the show begins.
Quite quickly it becomes apparent that these young artists are angry. And why not? There is lots in this life to be angry about: climate change denial, near-constant conflict in the Middle East, food banks prevalent in one of the world’s richest countries… The Alchemist Theatre Company here, however, is more concerned with celebrity culture, materialism, the drudgery of a life of work. The narration had no storytelling purpose, instead serving as a kind of political manifesto. Any sense of story was conveyed by the interactions between the mostly silent performers.
The problem here was that there was no clarity in the delineation of one character from another: the personas were all too fluid, meaning that the story became chaotic, with scenes seeming to be more concerned with visual effect than progressive complication for a distinctive protagonist. Any sense of threat was too generic to create any real tension or drama, leaving for a flat, bland experience.
If The Alchemist Theatre Company wanted to explore societal rebellion through the body, I wondered why they didn’t look at The Body itself as the material and meaning of revolution. History is littered with such causes, from physical slavery, to a woman’s right to birth control. There is so much that can be explored through a naked human and a stage, and silence too, none of which was done in Liberation.
In the one scene the characters do talk, it is in a gobbledygook Sims-speak. When Charlie Chaplin aped Adolf Hitler in The Great Dictator, his made-up German satirised the hollow politicking of a fascist. In Liberation, it is all cheap effect, detached from the idea of how language can be politicised, and become a weapon to oppress.
One saving grace of the show was that I was not bored, per se, for which they have the fantastic live music-makers to thank; the guitar loops, keyboards and drums adding much-needed emotional layers to an otherwise vacant piece of posturing.
In Liberation, there is no sense of guilt from the performers in consuming (and indeed feeding) the culture they oppose, no hint at addressing the real complexity of living ones ideals. They implicated the audience in their anti-establishment message without any sense of irony in being white dancers on a stage at the world’s biggest arts festival. The effect of powdered paint thrown across the performers’ bodies was visually beautiful, but ultimately not enough to elevate Liberation beyond A-Level conspiracy poetry.
Ross and Rachel by James Fritz
A young woman with curly brown hair stands in a dressing gown, mug in hand. She crouches before a shallow pool of water, around which sits half a dozen tea lights, flickering with the collective breath of an expectant audience, the orange shimmering on the water’s surface. A moment of calm, then she begins.
‘Sometimes, I just get really fucking sick of it. Don’t you?’
‘No.’ ‘Never?’ ‘No.’
It is an amicable argument. No tea is spilt, no fingers pointed. It is a tired difference of opinion, badly explained.
‘I just don’t like people thinking we come as a package.’
This is Rachel. And Ross. The woman we see before us, no more than thirty with a delicate Scottish accent, is the voice of The Couple®©™ of the late nineties, the “will they, won’t they?” romantic saga of TV’s Friends. Just as one can’t be named without mention of the other, here too, the couple are singular. This inseparability is, indeed, at the heart of Rachel’s chagrin.
‘I don’t know when people started saying our names together. You know? I don’t know when that happened.’
Rachel is an independent, successful woman, and it grates that she should only ever be referred to as second to her husband. Is it a coincidence, or a label of inferiority?
They pass through middle age, and whilst Ross feels proud to have bagged such an ageless beauty, Rachel’s doubts grow. Do they really have anything in common? Who is this annoying man, so prone to jealousy, laying next to her at night? Could she do better?
Then tragedy strikes. Ross has an aneurism, and is given a year to live.
No one told us life was going to be this way.
In Ross & Rachel, playwright James Fritz has taken a world which has, in many ways, coloured the romantic expectations of a TV-watching generation (now themselves considering marriage and children), and twisted expectations; bringing to the over-familiar story the raw doubts, macabre fantasies and unavoidable mess of true love (warts and all).
As the tumour progresses, we see the couples’ relationship deteriorate from both points-of-view: through Rachel, as she deals with the tides of guilt and helplessness in being a carer to her bed-bound husband, and through Ross, as he does and doesn’t come to terms with the inevitability of impending, untimely death.
As the play progresses towards its heartbreaking climax, the once spa-like shallow pool of water has become a surrogate womb. Molly Vevers –exceptional in her dual role– lies on her side, curled in a ball, in denial of what is happening, and incapable of changing the course set. As Ross, all adult pretences are slowly being stripped back, reducing the man into a fragile and disorientated voice. As Rachel, relief, guilt, sympathy and affection vie for her attention.
Ultimately, this play is about romance: one imagined, the other lived. The optimism of a feel-good TV sitcom teaches us that good things come to those who persist. Ross & Rachel, on the other hand, says life is what happens when you make other plans. Whilst playing off references to scenes from Friends episodes (sometimes eliciting knowing nods and chuckles from the 30-something couples littered throughout the audience), this exceptional piece of new writing is greater than the sum of its parts.
Whilst resonating with lived experience, it also leaves you with a haunting feeling that will be difficult to shake.
I’m Not Here Right Now by Thomas Eccleshare
A narrator reads a script, whilst the protagonist completes mundane tasks such as unpacking her bag. He recounts memories that lead up to her big choice: whether or not to seek out the abominable snowman that she swears she saw on a scientific expedition. The narration is exceptionally precise, and able to weave in expositional detail alongside some beautiful descriptions of characters and landscapes, up until the confusing and flat finale, when the protagonist runs around in circles through smoke machine fog amidst flashy lights. Overall, it felt one draft short of being great.
Police Cops by This Theatre
Playing off cop show clichés left right and centre, this spoof follows the journey of a rookie seeking vengeance for the death of his brother. With its fast pace, it manages not to ever feel self-indulgent despite rarely going beyond the obvious. For me there was more bite to be found in satirising American culture: the only real bum note of the night coming from a strained reference to institutional racism. But despite the show not being 100% polished, and the blocking sometimes problematic in an intimate thrust presentation, Police Cops is unashamed fun. A company with great potential.
An Oak Tree by Tim Crouch
Tim Crouch’s groundbreaking piece of experimental theatre sees the playwright play a second-rate pub hypnotist, staging his interaction with a father whose daughter he has accidentally killed in a car accident, played every night by a different performer who has never seen the script before. Seemingly more concerned more with form than emotion, I felt manipulated by the show. Yes, drama always does this, usually through an artifice that Crouch has here exposed. But by laying this architecture bare without replacing the artifice with anything but ideas, I couldn’t help but feel cold by the experience.
Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan Macmillan
Another show with a big reputation, in which a man recounts his making of a list of brilliant things that make life worth living, to forestall his mother’s wish to end her own life. There were moments of real emotion, but overall the show was pedestrian, whilst the interactivity established with the audience felt staged and superficial. I longed for the performer to invite us to offer our own reasons for keeping going, as additions to the list: a finale affirming optimism. But despite advertising suggesting this was something radical, it really is quite a conventional play, wrapped up in the dressing of something more unique.
Country Files, written and performed by Sophie Pelham
Playing with stereotypes of the countryside, this one-woman sketch show was too badly characterised to be theatre, and too unfunny to be comedy. Relying on easy clichés –a misogynistic UKIP supporting landowner– offset with uninspired surrealism –a rapping badger– this was on the wrong side of awkward. Relying 100% on the kindness of the audience, (who all would have left if they hadn’t spent £9 and hoped to see a return of sorts) this show was made all the worse by the strained attempts at audience interaction, and the interminable offstage costume changes. A complete car crash, and a waste of money, time and effort.
Hitch! by Mary Bijou Circus Theatre Company
I’m no circus aficionado, but I do have some understanding of acrobatics, and a strong interest in physical comedy. The first of two circus shows I saw that night was undoubtedly good in its technicality. The performers climbed, balanced and swang with aplomb, but the connection to the films of Alfred Hitchcock at times felt non-existent: an excuse to do what they were going to do anyway. When the thematic link did work, it was sublime, but they seemed more comfortable lampooning Hitchcock than committing whole-heartedly to homage. A good show in need of polishing.
Swing Circus by Swing Circus
Although less charismatic than the team that performed Hitch, this show had a more natural thematic pairing, circus and swing music: the concept imposing fewer pressures on the performers. They clearly loved the dances and fashions of the era, but the music was all recorded, which detracted a little from the liveness of the spectacle. But despite this, Swing was full of nice set pieces, and overall had a good flow, despite a bit of unnecessary repetition in some dance sequences, which felt like they were padding out the show.
Volume 2 by Gein’s Family Gift Shop
This show won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but in my opinion should be. They are a charismatic trio, and there was rarely a wasted moment in the whole night. Motifs such as blood, buggery and pooing yourself were threaded throughout the 60 minutes with effortless charm. In the night’s best sketch, one of the troupe’s performers mimes his descent into hell when trying to silently offer his friend a pint of beer. Only a couple of jokes fell flat, and other than small blips, it was a hilarious night. They deserve to sell out whenever they perform.
Blind Man’s Song by Theatre Re
An old blind man doesn’t want to remember the past, but can’t forget his lost love, these memories embodied through the young bodies of a male and female dancer, whose faces have been masked with plain, anonymising cloth. Two years ago I saw Translunar Paradise, a show that not only covered the same thematic territory, but like this piece, utilised live music, prop and physical theatre. Blind Man’s Song felt like a cheap bootleg, with the music loops but superficial affectation, the mime far too loose and ambiguous. It suffered from over-ambition: whilst trying to be everything at once, it did nothing adequately. A dull and pretentious show.
Tonight with Donny Stixx by Philip Ridley
A boy paces around the stage with a bounce in his step. He is buzzing on the good will of the audience: their questions are reverent, polite, loving. Then someone brings up the shooting, and he snaps. A masterclass in monologue, Donny Stixx sees our titular hero travel from teenage magician to mass murderer, via the suicide of his depressive mother and the hospitalisation of his father. Melodramatic it does sound, but the narrative never veers in that direction; grounded as it is in earthy language, dark humour and a real sense of empathy from the playwright for misunderstood outsiders.