Edinburgh Fringe Festival Highlights

There aren’t many weeks of the year when you can see an office worker being savaged by a bear, a woman dancing in a flaming hula-hoop, a boxing match set to the music of Underworld and a seance interrupted by a maggot-faced monster. I did, of course, make a few bad choices — there should be some form of temporal refund for a wasted hour of your life — but despite the negative critical consensus, there was some terrific work this summer. Here are a few of my highlights:

One of the most contentious shows of the Festival was Ontroerend Goed‘s Teenage Riot, which enraged many of the audience I saw it with, alienated even the company’s most sympathetic critics but is one of the most exhilarating shows of the year. Devised with the Drum Theatre in Plymouth, most of the action takes place inside a large wooden box, which is placed in the centre of the stage, with live video footage from inside projected onto the front. Inside the box are eight teenagers, laughing, snogging, making rude jokes, giving cheerfully offensive sex tips and raging at each other. At various points in the performance different cast members leave the box and address the audience, culminating in a full-on massed verbal assault. It’s filthy, funny and occasionally infuriating, and is a rare, raw work of youth theatre that feels genuinely driven by the cast, rather than imposed by adult sensibilities. It’s like a teenaged version of Where The Wild Things Are in which the monsters are us, the adult world, and ends in a moment of absolute rapture that reframes everything that’s gone before.

Another show that builds to a breathtaking climax is Flesh and Blood and Fish and Fowl, created by Geoff Sobelle and Charlotte Ford from Barrow Street Theatre in New York. Its opening could not be more low key. We are in the bleak grey offices of a ready-made meal company, where two of its employees are playing out a love hate relationship: she loves him, and he hates her. Slowly the banal frustrations of office life — a fly in the room, a recalcitrant photocopier — build into a series of exquisite physical comedy scenes that are some of the funniest things I’ve seen this year, before the tone of the show begins to change and it becomes something much more unsettling and strange. I won’t give away any more because I spoke to Charlotte Ford afterwards and they’re hoping to bring it to London: all I can say now is to look out for it, and book fast, because it’s sure to be a hit.

Bryony Lavery’s Beautiful Burnout, from Frantic Assembly and the National Theatre of Scotland, arrived with huge expectations and largely delivers them. Lavery takes many of the familiar elements of boxing drama — the grizzled coach, the rebellious student, the new kid in the gym — and makes them spiky, funny and fresh, particularly in the character of Dina (a terrific performance from Vicki Manderson), a young woman with every reason to want to learn to fight, for whom the violence of the ring is perhaps her best salvation from the violence of the world. The other characters don’t come into quite such focus, but with blistering fight choreography from co-directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, and a thundering soundtrack from Underworld, Beautiful Burnout — staged here in a real gym — is a literally heart-racing experience.

Smaller, more delicate but no less thrilling is The Vanishing Horizon from Idle Motion, which combines two narrative threads: young author James’s history of the great female aviators and his girlfriend Anna’s emotional journey to discover the hidden truth about her family. The two stories glide and weave around each other as Anna flies across the world, the common thread of journeys beautifully dramatised using models, puppetry and real vintage suitcases that have been transformed into windows, wings, fridges and engines. It’s a beautifully crafted, precision-performance show shot through with real poignancy: I wasn’t the only person in the audience who was a little tearful at the end. It’s coming to London next spring; in the meantime here’s the trailer:

In Maison Foo‘s Memoirs of a Biscuit Tin, a house struggles to come to terms with the disppearance of its owner, the elderly Mrs Benjamin. The three performers, Kathryn Lowe, Bethany Sheldon and Jennifer Sumner, play the Floor, Wall and Chimney of the house respectively, as they recall scenes from Mrs Benjamin’s life in order to piece together what has happened to her. It’s an idea that could be impossibly twee, but this show is a cake with a razor inside: there’s a slice of dark reality beneath the surface charm that, with a little more focus and polish (not literally, Floor), could make it something very memorable indeed. Memoirs is pacy, witty and full of invention, but could afford to push the audience’s emotions a bit further, and challenge us a little more.

One show that certainly challenges its audience — and has, I was told, this year’s record for walk-outs — is The Author, Tim Crouch’s play that first showed at the Royal Court last year. We’re in a theatre, the house lights are up, and there are two banks of seating that face one another. That’s the set. A man in the audience starts talking. That’s the cast. And a conversation begins. That’s the play. We will discover, over the next hour or so, that there are other actors in the audience. We will also discover, and in some cases test, the limits of our capacity for hearing about horror, and at what point we feel complicit, even guilty, for staying to listen. We will question the idea of research in performance: at what point does research become pornography, and at what point an actor a prostitute? These are not, of course, new debates, but The Author takes them on in a vivid, original manner that kept many of my audience talking long after the end of the play. Chris Goode, who plays “Chris” in the current production (and is also a former Director of Camden People’s Theatre), kept a fascinating diary of his sometimes painful experience of the show, which is well worth reading if you’re intrigued by the play and its ideas.

Another show that questions the rights and responsibilities of artists is Others, the latest show from The Paper Birds, which has become richer, darker and more troubling since I saw an early version at CPT this spring. Artistic Director Jemma McDonnell began a series of correspondences with women at the extremes of “normal” society: a celebrity, a prisoner and a woman in Iran. But what began as an examination of what it means to be “other” has developed into a show that questions the assumptions that the team themselves had made, and reasons for their curiosity. Some of this is very funny, as when performer Maryam Hamidi acts out the team’s increasingly extreme assumptions about life as a woman in Iran. Other parts are quieter, more painful, as they deal with their inevitable curiosity about the offence that the prisoner committed: having begun the process determined to portray the woman not the crime, they become more and more desperate to know what she has done. Making the show’s development an inherent part of the performance could, in other hands, become painfully self-referential, but this show draws the audience in so deeply that their journey becomes ours, and we question our own motives just as they interrogate theirs. It’s also consistently, beautifully inventive, testing its own theatrical boundaries to breaking point and, finally, beyond.

Finally, Smoke and Mirrors, which played in the Spiegeltent, is inevitably being called the next La Clique but is altogether more interesting: a dark, melancholic burlesque show that blends mime, magic, music and some stunning aerial work with a dystopian Edwardian aesthetic that chills as much as it charms. There’s dazzling technique here, and you’ll laugh all the way through, but as you step out of the tent into the darkness it’s a relief to discover that the lights are still on.

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