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The New Review: Critics: Edinburgh festival: THEATRE: 'Now, if you could all just take off your shoes...': Audience participation isn't always as excruciating as it sounds. Sometimes all you have to do is applaud, laugh or burst into tears, as last week's tour of the fringe proved

August 10, 2014

Tom Lamont



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 Edinburgh fringe while, pressing in either side of me, two grinning thesps sang a nonsense-language duet across my chest. They appeared to be having a ball.

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 Secret Theatre Company) wore warm-up clothes. We were encouraged to find our seats in the converted church with the daunting sense we'd interrupted some sort of drama class. "Now," one of the company began, "if you could all take your shoes off and come up on stage. . . " He was joking, thank God, playing with the foolery of bad participatory theatre. Though this production had the trappings of one that was going to make its audience squirm, and maybe take part in some sort of all-in barn dance, instead it was specifically, squarely about its cast.

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 Tina Turner. The next night, after Stevie's hour, the same dance to Tina had a more muted feel. The mood at the end, so exuberant when everything developed from Billy, was now more contemplative, even mournful; Stevie was somehow a more tragic figure and some left in tears. I wasn't the only one itching to know how nights centring on other protagonists would play out. If you go, and it's Matti, the dancer, or Hammed, with the beautiful voice, or Katherine, who also popped up as a DVD seller in Early Doors, get in touch and let me know. Truly a production worth paying for more than once.

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 Clara Brennan, energetically directed by Bethany Pitts, that charted a London teenager's unorthodox education in literature and political rebellion. The teen (Rosie Wyatt, excellent) was taught by an ageing lefty how to kick up a stink in her community with something other than her fists. Another sort of education was portrayed in Freak (Assembly George Square Studios), an unflinching play about sex by Anna Jordan. Uncomfortable to watch, then suddenly laugh-aloud funny, it offset the story of a 15-year-old's first time (not terrible) against a 30-year-old's umpteenth time (very terrible). There was a beautiful moment of collision when the older woman ended up in the younger's bedroom. She looked at the posters on the wall; when she was young they would have celebrated Nirvana or Pulp Fiction, and now they endorsed a nearly-nude Rihanna, a lollipop-sucking Katie Perry. "Who are these fucking women?"

Another show, with a mouthful of a title - Standby for Tape Back-Up (Summerhall) - shattered me. A monologue by writer-performer Ross Sutherland, it was so strange, so wholly involving I could hardly look away from Sutherland's tortured face to scratch notes. What exactly happened is hard to describe. If I had to guess at what sort of a rule theatre-makers have about theatre critics, it would be that their one- or two-sentence summaries of complex productions are never worth the reading. . . Certainly it's tempting to abandon any effort to precis Standby in order to simply write down the booking number, because this is a fringe must-see, for sure. But let's have a go.

Sutherland, a poet from Edinburgh, told us he'd come up against a barrier in his thinking about life. It was, essentially, too bloody enormous to trim down to manageable, mental size. And if existential thinking was so sprawling, so map-less, why not take prompts (what the hell!) from an old VHS tape he'd found in his attic. The tape was full of odd little snippets of 1990s TV programming; the snippets projected on to a wall behind Sutherland as he spoke. From the audience, you only really worked out what was going on when his rhythmic script began to magically accord with the footage behind, first a scene from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, then from Ghostbusters

An excerpt from Channel 4's The Crystal Maze, repeatedly rewound, prompted in Sutherland a disquisition on second chances. Later he riffed over an old ad for NatWest. This was profound and emotional use of a high-street banking commercial, with more meaning found in its two minutes than the creators could ever have intended. Sutherland's lyrical bitterness, as he told of a miserable four years working at a NatWest branch, mounted to the point that he was spitting fury at the screen. This extraordinary hour ended with analysis of a scene from Jaws, the famous opener in which the shark creates terror without ever being witnessed. Sutherland concluded, calmer now, that maybe existence doesn't need to be reduced and described. In life, as in Spielberg, you only needed to know that something's out there for it to matter.

Captions:

'Lyrical bitterness': Ross Sutherland's riveting Standby

for Tape Back-Up at Summerhall.

Photograph by Murdo MacLeod



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Source: Observer (UK)


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