Edinburgh Fringe highlights

Edinburgh is one of the highlights of my year: the perfect antidote to that back-to-school September feeling, a way of kicking off the autumn re-ignited and inspired. And that’s never felt more true than this year. All of the shows, of course, were written long before the riots that shadowed this summer. But taken together, some of the best ones amount to a kind of manifesto, a plea for an everyday activism that won’t accept that Britain is broken, and suggests a positive way forward.

The most overtly political show was Josie Long’s The Future Is Another Place, a passionate plea for engagement, for optimism and for a different future to the Government’s grimly utilitarian approach. With the Coalition attacking all the things that she personally loves — do they really hate forests? And libraries? And arts education? Yes, if they can’t turn a profit — she has found a new and urgent voice, campaigning with AES and UK Uncut, and appearing on The Daily Politics, where she admits to a soft spot for Michael Portillo. But becoming more political has not made her less funny; by becoming more personal, and more particular, her work has become more distinctive too. Five years ago she was an alternative voice. Now she’s a necessary one.

Gentler on the surface, but just as passionate beneath, You Once Said Yes by Look Left Look Right is a thrilling adventure in optimism. You begin the show with a briefing, and are given a bright orange bag. You are then directed to leave the theatre, without any further instructions. On the street outside, a foreign student approaches you. She’s looking for her hostel, and needs directions: will you walk with her? Accepting her request leads to a series of small favours, each involving different characters, spread out across the city, leading to an unexpected and exhilarating ending. Although each individual section is no more than ten minutes long it’s a surprisingly emotional experience; as with Ontroerend Goed’s Internal there’s a curious cognitive dissonance between knowing that this is theatre and feeling a genuine connection with the people that you meet. Above all it’s an argument for generosity, for listening, for making connections, and for the infinite value of serendipity.

For a more bracing form of interaction, try Ontroerend Goed’s Audience, which comes to London in December. One of the most polarising shows on the Fringe, it is, in essence, exactly what it says: a show about being an audience. As you arrive you are welcomed, and offered a place to put your coats and bags. You are addressed by a young woman who outlines the “rules” of theatre, and how an audience behaves. And then an image appears onscreen behind her: the image of you. As the on-stage video camera roams across the audience, the performers give voice to your thoughts: sometimes funny, sometimes touching, sometimes cruel. But this is just the beginning of a show that’s centred on confrontation, initially between one actor and one audience member, but increasingly between the cast and the audience, and even between different factions of the crowd. It’s uncomfortable, unpredictable (the show is structured and scripted, but audiences behave differently each time. One night the cast had a shoe thrown at them; on my night a furious woman berated one of the cast long after the show had ended) and exhilarating: a meditation on the nature of obedience and crowds. You might like it, you might not, but don’t believe the critics who claim that it’s cynical. It’s not. It’s manipulative and knowing, but it’s heartfelt, and talking to the company afterwards revealed a genuine, excited curiosity about human motivation and behaviour. And be warned: most reviews of the show give away much more than I have. The less you know the better.

Ontroerend Goed’s last show was the equally divisive Teenage Riot, which is pretty much the evil twin of Glasgow youth theatre Junction 25‘s I Hope My Heart Goes First. Devised and performed by a large teenaged cast, it’s an exploration of love: romantic, sexual, filial, fraternal, played out in a series of fast-moving, often very funny vignettes, linked by expertly choreographed movement and dance. One of its most striking insights about youth culture is its ability to be absolutely sincere and absolutely ironic at the same time; you can laugh, for example at My Heart Will Go On while being shamelessly moved by its sentiment. This is a show about self-discovery, about first love and first heartbreak. And it’s a reminder of how much of love is theatre. There’s an infectious joy to the whole cast, the joy of putting on a show, and it leaves you with a great hope for the future.

Another, very different show about youth is Chris Goode‘s mesmerising The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley, the story of a shy, gay teenager who becomes sidekick to Wound Man, a superhero of sorts based on the famous illustration in Johannes de Ketham’s Fasciculus Medicinae. It’s a touching, tender, very funny piece of storytelling that argues that vulnerability can be its own form of strength, and that no-one should be afraid to be afraid. It left a good third of the audience quietly tearful, and has the best joke about a dog’s bottom ever.

Thirsty (picture, top) the new show from the brilliant Paper Birds, looks at another all too familiar element of growing up British: binge drinking. Its familiarity is immediately acknowledged in the show, which began as an investigation — complete with voicemails from drunken members of the public — into drinking and its effects on every sector of society. But much as creator-performers Jemma McDonnell and Kylie Walsh wanted to avoid focusing on any one group, an overwhelming majority of the stories they heard were about young women: how alcohol touches their work lives, social lives, family lives and sexual lives, and how it can become the one relationship that remains a constant through them all. Full of wit — both visual and verbal — and some of the Birds’ best physical theatre, including an extraordinary extended drinking scene, it’s nonetheless a dark and haunting show, one to look out for when it tours next year.

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