If you can fall and injure your foot so badly that it requires a hospital trip, and yet still profess to have had a good time, you know a festival is getting it right. Of course, Edinburgh Festival Fringe as a whole needs little reviewing (its reputation as a world-class event precedes it), but of the individual show,s there is a lot more to be said.
I have a theory that bad comedy is far easier to do (and consequently more common) than bad theatre, and as such I limited my theatre-going at this year’s Fringe to drama, and more specifically to new work; either my theory is correct, or I just got lucky, because I didn’t see a single ‘bad’ show.
I Hope My Heart Goes First, devised and performed by young people’s performance company Junction 25, spoke with the combined voices of everybody involved. The show, comprised of the performers’ individual responses to ideas associated with the heart, merged the abstract (sibling love, love songs, romantic love in its many forms) with a more scientific approach. As such, the emotions uncovered were as intimate as they were wide-ranging, and were explored with such a natural precision that it almost felt unplanned. Well devised, well performed and well enjoyed, I was unable to fault the production; while I appreciate that this kind of theatre isn’t for everyone, it definitely is for me, and the show made a fantastic start to the festival that I felt would be difficult to match.
And it was. The second show I saw was a free performance: New Room Theatre’s Are You Happy Now? After my parents’ bad experiences of free events at last year’s Fringe, I had been thoroughly warned off them – but being of a slightly contrary nature, I went along anyway. And I have to say that, although I wasn’t exactly blown away, I was pleasantly surprised. Set in the waiting room of a station, the play explored the increasingly claustrophobic relationships of four men (played by Mark Jeary and Mark Booth). The intimate venue and simplistic set certainly added to the sense of pressure that Jeary and Booth carried off so well – although I was less convinced by some of the direction; the play opened with a long period of mime and stillness that failed to grab the audience’s attention. However, despite my reservations that the climactic ending was unnecessarily catastrophic and added nothing to the plot, it was a generally well-written piece. I definitely felt it didn’t deserve some of the criticism I afterwards heard from my fellow audience-members (ladies’ toilets are excellent places to gauge a reaction to a show); yes, the show did contain the odd swear-word, but if theatre is to be representative of how many people speak, surely it ought to be licensed to use the occasional f-word. (I also wonder why, since the two middle-aged theatre-goers outside my cubicle seemed disdainful of the absence of a happy ending, they didn’t spend their time at a comedy instead – but life is full of mysteries.) Personally I enjoyed the performance (f-words and all), and while it probably the least impressive thing I saw at the festival, it was fifth out of a very high-ranking five.
Similarly lacking in a cheery ending (although with no sign of my middle-aged ladies) was My Best Friend Drowned in a Swimming Pool. Written by twenty-year-old Irish actress and writer Eva O’Connor and performed by Sunday’s Child, the show explored the lives of four young people following the event of the title, along with the reactions of Henry (the now-deceased eponymous ‘best friend’) to the mundane rebuilding of their lives. The work done by this piece of writing, perfectly blending the magnified trivialities of everyday teenage life with the trauma of losing a friend, was echoed and amplified by the actors’ frantically energetic portrayals of their characters, so that sitting in the audience was like watching the frenzied whirling of a Catherine wheel. My only issue with the play was that it felt very much like a piece written by a young playwright, and like pieces I have seen by other young playwrights and so somehow felt a little less original than it might otherwise have been. But I still certainly enjoyed it.
Also incredibly enjoyable was the popular Shakespeare for Breakfast, which rewrote Shakespeare’s Macbeth to set it in a high-school, complete with goth-witches, sock-puppets, a cheerleading Lady Macbeth, and Lady Gaga dance routines – all served with a cup of tea and a croissant. What more could a person want? Except for comic references to Shakespeare (much appreciated by a geek like myself) and to popular culture, both of which were doled out in abundance as the actors romped the audience through the play. By the end, the bullies were beaten, the goths accepted into the fold, and the audience in fits of laughter. Although vying for my top choice (with I Hope My Heart Goes First and What It Feels Like), Shakespeare for Breakfast undoubtedly gets bonus points for being the only one able to immortalise the line: ‘Is this a croissant that I see before me?’
My final show of the festival came to my attention after fate bumped me into one of the cast members, a fellow Holloway English student. Encompass Productions’ What It Feels Like was like a surreal and unsettling dream; it is clear that somebody has a tight grip on the reigns, but the show keeps us asking who, and why. This was a production that definitely didn’t shy away from asking big questions. Even more than the writing, the acting was superb; not only were the principals all fantastically convincing, but the ensemble of mysterious ‘aspects’ (dressed all in black and faceless) was pulled off with incredible ingenuity, adding to the unearthly feel of the piece. I left the theatre feeling both awed and uneasy, and with a definite appetite for more. Encompass is definitely a group to watch.