A rough rule I've drummed up about theatre-going is that if the performers are having conspicuously more fun than the audience, the transaction has gone wrong. We're paying to be here! And when theatre begins to seem like an intrusion into actors' enjoyment of their own nerve and charm, it's all too much like walking into one of those beard-run gastropubs or coffee shops where the staff are bunched up at the end of the bar, knitting and making plans to sleep with each other while you wait to pay too much for a drink. Last week I stood fixed in awkwardness and boredom in the corner of a warehouse venue at the
Klanghaus (at Summerhall) - in which we walked about cramped rooms trailed by musicians playing obscure stuff as images of shoes and empty corridors flashed on to the walls - felt like the longest show I've seen at this festival. It ran 45 minutes. I tried to take solace, afterwards, in the confirmation of my excellent rule: the creators simply forgot to make it interesting or enjoyable for us. But the thing about developing grouchy and reductive notions about art is that they never hold up; something good comes along demanding an exception. Within hours of Klanghaus I'd seen two productions at the fringe that ground my stupid rule to powder.
Early Doors, by Not Too Tame (Fleshmarket Close), put its audience in booths and on bar stools around the "Jinglin' Geordie" pub. Actors, likewise sitting around with drinks or embedded as pint-pullers, told a portmanteau story about British boozers and their regulars. With a bawdy proprietor climbing on to laps, and a pub quiz with pens and answer sheets, this was the sort of no-escape, get-involved deal that might have been murder; but Early Doors was winning, tidily executed, a darkly comic scene about child custody segueing into a knowing song about adultery, then a sad little vignette about men and drink and temper. The cast's evident nerve and charm was vital fuel. Their spirits cajoled the packed room and quickly we were all having as much fun as one another.
A very different show, A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts (King's Hall), relied more explicitly on its cast's nerve, their charm. Impossible Acts proved extraordinary, though I was uneasy walking in. The house lights were up. Nine actors (from the Lyric Hammersmith's
The concept was cool. A random member of the company was to be selected each night as principal protagonist. (I saw the show twice: first brassy, quick-witted Billy had his name pulled from a hat, then it was the measured, more sentimental Stevie.) The protagonist was put through a series of physical trials. Bend a steel rod, eat a lemon, down a beer, wrestle castmates, recite Shakespeare just after downing a beer and wrestling castmates. They were quickly ruined by exhaustion of course (and Billy especially looked as if he might die). Meanwhile, at scripted intervals the protagonist was prompted to speak about things specific to them, fears, first kisses, and to engage in curious question-and-answer sessions about love. The aim, as I took it, was that as they got tired they would find a peeled-away, unactorly truth in what they said and did.
Billy was scared of heights, of cancer, Stevie of never having kids. As a kid himself, Stevie admitted (flat on his back, panting after a long yoga-and-dance sequence), he'd once squeezed six baby chicks to death. . . Billy's hour ended raucously, with a dance to
After all this format-kinking it was a relief, in its way, to sit in darkness again - frowning at one- or two-handers, hearing yarns. Spine (Underbelly) was a neat monologue by
Another show, with a mouthful of a title - Standby for Tape Back-Up (Summerhall) - shattered me. A monologue by writer-performer
Sutherland, a poet from
An excerpt from
for Tape Back-Up at Summerhall.
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