Edinburgh Fringe 2009: Theatre Highlights

So the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2009 has come to a close.

Doubtless a few stray, soggy flyers are still dancing along the Royal Mile, but the vast majority of performers, promoters and press folk have returned from whence they came and all the Edinburgh residents have begun to emerge from wherever they hide in August.

To mark the end of the festival musicOMH’s Natasha Tripney and Anna Lowman take you through their Edinburgh experience.
Theatre Highlights: The Good, The Bad and the Gorey

The Traverse had a characteristically solid line up. In terms of the sheer quantity of good feeling generated, David Greig’s romantic comedy, Midsummer, a play with songs,’ sat comfortably at the top of the pile. Performed with chemistry and invention by Matthew Pidgeon and Cora Bissett, the play was a kind of Richard Curtis-Danny Boyle mash up One Wedding, Some Vomit and a Bagful of Cash warm, funny and light as a helium balloon, liable to float up and out of your mind as soon as you let go of the string.

Elaine Murphy’s Little Gem was an unashamedly sentimental piece about three generations of women in the same Dublin family. It was fairly straight down the line in terms of writing and presentation. It took the form of three alternating monologues: there was a birth, there was a death, and there was a joke about a vibrator, but the performances were assured, (particularly by Hilda Fay who has the least showy and the more complex bridging role as the mother, Lorraine), and it rarely felt cloying or manipulative. Indeed by the end it had successfully broken through my veneer of cyncism and touched something real and warm inside (i.e. it made me cry a tiny little bit).

Dennis Kelly’s Orphans on the other hand, while an excellent exercise in the controlled release of information to the audience, seemed to work best as the trigger for a post-play debate on the plausibility of the actions of various characters and on the lengths that one would and should go to for the sake of one’s family.

Hoipolloi’s misconceived staging of Edward Gorey’s The Doubtful Guest was the biggest disappointment of the Traverse line up; it took an elegant, perfectly formed thing and stretched it out of all recognition. The device of having the characters laboriously explain what they were about to do before they do it was (very) mildly amusing the first time it happened but soon became tedious in the extreme.

Of all the shows under the Traverse banner, it was Ontroerend Goed’s Internal that provided the most brain-fuel. It’s been discussed at length elsewhere but I shall throw my coins into the hat anyway. Internal is a show for five audience members at a time that took place at the Mecure Point Hotel. At the start the audience members enter a small room and stand in front of curtain. This is then lifted to reveal five performers, who appear to assess the people in front of them and then shuffle around accordingly, selecting a particular member of the audience as their partner and taking their chosen date’ to a little booth where drinks are offered and a conversation is had. Often this conversation is flirtatious in nature, occasionally it is confrontational, and sometimes the performer doesn’t speak at all.

I have heard talk of underwear being removed at other performances, and of breasts being flashed, but the closest I got to anything like that was when my date laid a selection of naked photos of himself on the table and asked me which one I preferred. Oddly I found myself considering this, assessing the images and giving an honest answer. I found this a little jarring I’ll admit though not shocking; I then asked if my date was tired since this was the 9.30 performance and the last of the day, and it was interesting that he was happy to acknowledge the level of repetition involved in what he was doing and that there was no attempt to pretend this was something other than what it was.

In the end the questions I was left with were not ones of intimacy or boundaries or of emotional connection but questions about the production itself. How much of what went on was scripted? How much freedom do the performers give themselves within the scenarios? Is the performers’ selection of partner at the start based on anything particular or is the selection process itself illusory? How does the exchange work with dates of the same sex? Is there a pre-arranged cut-off point, a line that they won’t cross? Have they ever had any reactions from audience members they haven’t felt comfortable with?

I’ve heard people talk of the experience as extremely liberating while others have described finding it intrusive; there has even been talk of feeling used. Perhaps I didn’t give myself to it as much as I might, but the production, to me, was simply a thing I experienced, neither revelatory nor exploitative. I was honest but guarded in my answers as I suspect, though I can’t know for sure, were most of the people in my group. The post-date discussion (when performers and audience gather in a circle and talk about each other) was amiable and lacking in fireworks. Much more satisfying and informative was the pavement-based huddle between myself and my four co-Internalees after we had left the building. Thirty minutes earlier we had been smiling pleasantly but mutely at one another in the hotel reception/audience holding area and yet after a less than half an hour we were stood together on the street, laughing and chatting about what had just taken place, so clearly a transition of sorts had occurred, a few fences had fallen.

Fuel and the Forest

Away from the Traverse, London production company Fuel brought a sextet of fascinating shows to the Fringe, including Melanie Wilson’s hypnotic, enigmatic Iris Brunette and Sound&Fury’s immersive Kursk, which was staged in the cavernous Drill Hall; Inua Ellams’ spoken word show The 14th Tale, while simple in comparison, was driven by a rich and lyrical use of language.

The Forest Fringe predictably proved to be one of the most exciting venues to visit. Holding a kind of mini-festival within the bigger embrace of the Fringe, the church hall on Bristo Place was home to a programme of exciting and genuinely experimental work from companies including Rotozaza, Action Hero, Tinned Fingers and Third Angel. Time constraints meant I didn’t get to see as much of this as I’d have liked but I did manage to squeeze in two separate visits to see Little Bulb, the company behind the charming, inventive and genuinely moving Crocosmia. They were in residence at the Forest, staging Sporadical, a 45 minute epic folk opera’ which took the form of an annual family reunion for the sprawling Welles-Ferry clan. A slim but amusing tale was told involving ghosts and mermaids and music with props made of cardboard and poster paint. The resulting piece was wonderfully sponge-like, able to absorb and incorporate wobbling sets and temporary power failures, and simply one of the most uplifting and enjoyable experiences of my festival.

The Bedlam also staged a couple of interesting pieces including Ella Hickson’s absorbing second play, Precious Little Talent, which showed her building on the promise shown with Eight, and the aesthetically cohesive (though not quite as satisfying in narrative terms), Lilly Through The Dark, a fairy tale for grown ups by the River People. Meanwhile Frisky and Mannish’s School of Pop was about as perfect a mid-fest pick-me-up as I could have wished for.

Edinburgh: Lessons Learnt?

Have I learnt anything from my first full length stint on the Fringe? Well, I have learnt that it is perfectly possible to spend almost a month in Edinburgh and still come away not having seen everything one wanted to see. I have learnt that it is all too easy to get locked into a bubble of show-going and to become obsessed about filling one’s time (well, I have a spare half hour here, maybe I could squeeze in some street theatre.) I have learnt that, aside from the novelty factor, there is very little to be said for seeing four or five shows a day; it leaves little room for mental digestion and for letting what you have seen spread through your system, growing and unfolding instead it must be tidied away so you can turn your attention to whatever’s next and at it’s worst it results in a mental drifting during the show itself, as your brain begins thinking about routes and start times and deadlines. I have learnt that the social element of the festival is crucial in many ways and my Edinburgh experience was enhanced considerably by spending time with various visiting friends; solo show-going has its advantages and can be rather pleasurable but some Fringe productions, particularly the more comedy-orientated ones, are simply more enjoyable when seen with company.

I have learnt that the word tram is spoken with the same level of venom as an expletive in Edinburgh and will be until 2011. I have learnt that one can live off coffee, wine, apples and croissants but one probably shouldn’t. I have learnt that I can see over 70 shows and still come away loving the theatre and its capability to transport and delight and fire the imagination which is, I think, a good thing.

Read Anna Lowman’s Edinburgh comedy highlights.

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