Edinburgh 2015: Short Takes

Blammo! Here's a heap of short reviews—22 of 'em—from Edinburgh. Things get a little less kind as you read on. Find individual links to these reviews (occasionally in shorter form) here

Portraits in Motion (Volker Gerling in association with Aurora Nova)
Volker Gerling calls himself a “flipbook filmmaker." Since 2003, the Berlin-based artist has been taking long walks—he’s clocked more than 3,500 miles—mostly in Germany, and photographing people. Thirty-six shots in 12 seconds, on a loud and heavy Nikon F3. The black-and-white results, assembled into flipbooks, are a stunning twist on time-lapse photography. Sometimes he shoots solo portraits, at other times a mother and daughter or a trio of teenagers (wait till you see what happens there). For this show, Gerling stands before us with an unassuming but professorial air, telling stories and flipping through each book three times, images projected behind him. (There’s a nice auditory quality to the pages flapping by.) It’s a quiet but deeply moving study—the face can adopt an astonishing range of expressions in 12 seconds—punctuated by warm and genuine humor.

Every Brilliant Thing (Paines Plough and Pentabus Theatre Company)
Returning to Edinburgh after a stint Off-Broadway, Every Brilliant Thing is as heartrending as it is uproarious. Written by Duncan Macmillan, this one-man show follows an unnamed narrator (Jonny Donahoe) as he recounts growing up with a suicidal mother. After she first attempts to kill herself, the 7-year-old starts making a list of everything that’s brilliant: ice cream, the color yellow, people falling over. He keeps adding to it as he grows up, falls in love and experiences his own bouts of depression. It’s a beautiful story, but the real masterstroke is how the boundlessly congenial Donahoe involves the audience. After all, how many performers could so lovingly convince someone to remove their shoes and socks—twice?

This Will End Badly (Anna Haigh Productions)
Rob Hayes’ searing new play is a triptych of men in crisis. (It makes a brilliant companion piece to Stef Smith’s Swallow.) None gets a real name. There’s aspiring jingle writer This Pain, alone in his flat and tumbling into obsessive compulsion. Meat Cute fetishises women’s ankles and is on the callous, calculated prowl for his next conquest. Misery Guts hasn’t taken a dump in more than a week, not since his girlfriend split—crippled by pain, he’s starting to imagine conversations with a penis doodle in his toilet. Under a naked light bulb, the wiry, wired Ben Whybrow snaps between characters with razor precision. He stares audience members down: “Imagine that, some dude’s jizz in your eyes,” he snarls, not breaking your gaze. It’s ruthless, taut and devastating, as much a punch to the gut as to the heart.

Blind Cinema (Britt Hatzius)
As you take your seat in the movie theater, uniformed schoolchildren—aged 8 to 11—file in behind you. You’re handed a blindfold, then a cone to hold to your ear. For the next 40 minutes a film will play, but you will see none of it. Instead, a child will whisper to you about eggshells, feathers, a glass house. You will hear the child breathe. You will hear her hesitate to find the right words. You will hear other children murmuring around you. You will, inevitably, wonder what the other kids are saying, if they’re being funnier or more interesting than your child, and then you will feel bad for having wondered this. (Don’t worry: they shuffle about, so you’ll hear three different children. Though that didn’t stop a woman near me from turning to her friend afterwards: “I didn’t like my second kid,” she sniffed.) It’s an experiment in sensory deprivation, and in power dynamics. Sure, the stakes aren’t terribly high. They’re not leading you blindfolded across a motorway. They’re not even taking barber shears to your head, as in Mammalian Diving Reflex’s Haircuts with Children. But Blind Cinema still flips the equation in subtle, fascinating ways.

Gods Are Fallen And All Safety Gone (Greyscale)
Two men are on stage. They’re playing mother and daughter. That, on its face, is the gimmick of Selma Dimitrijevic’s play. But what’s so inspired about Gods Are Fallen is that though Sean Campion and Scott Turnbull are indeed playing women, they’re not performing gender. Which isn’t to say gender entirely falls away, but as the two cycle through conversation—about the weather, Aunt Marie, the daughter’s boyfriend—we can’t chalk any of it up to “womanhood.” (Which in turn says a lot about our quickness to read the male body as neutral, but that’s a conversation for another time. Still, I’d love to see this show performed by other constellations—two women, different ages, other races.) What remains is a wonderfully layered, beautifully performed work that runs through a Rolodex of emotions—aggravation, love, regret, worry, fear—with piercing intelligence.

Backstage in Biscuit Land (Touretteshero)
In the words of a friend, Jess Thom is a “crazy language-generating machine.” The source of her brilliance? Tourette’s, a neurological condition that causes uncontrollable verbal and physical tics. So Thom spends a lot of time punching her own chest and repeating the words “biscuit” and “hedgehog,” but also spits delightfully surrealistic turns of phrase—something about Bananarama and sandcastles, or a caution against washing your groin with a kiwi fruit. Joined by the perpetually game Jess Mabel Jones, Thom allows us to laugh, while also asking important questions about what constitutes “appropriate” audience behavior. “I know this is the only seat in the house I won’t be asked to leave,” she says. Thank goodness—it’d be a crime to shut down anything so ebullient and moving.

Swallow (Traverse Theatre Company)
Young Scottish playwright Stef Smith knows how to bring beauty to the breakdown. Her new play, the piercing, elegantly off-kilter Swallow, introduces us to a trio of women. Anna (Emily Wachter) is smashing up her flat—mirrors, phone, floorboards—and gluing together the shards with pesto. Rebecca (Anita Vettesse) is rudderless after a bad breakup. And Samantha (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) is binding her chest with gaffer tape and testing the waters as Sam. As their stories intersect, the simplest lines stand out more than the occasionally strained metaphors. “It’s not a lie,” says Anna, “just a past-tense truth.” Orla O’Loughlin directs with sensitivity and grace—even if things get a little cute at the end—trusting the three remarkable performers to fuel the show.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (Corn Exchange)
Sexual abuse, parental contempt, violence, religious guilt, disease: it’s harrowing stuff. And, frankly, well-trodden territory for Irish literature. But in Annie Ryan’s adaptation of Eimear McBride’s 2013 novel, it’s elevated to mesmerizing—and thoroughly disquieting—poetry. A fragmented interior monologue of trauma and tragedy, the show follows an unnamed narrator from birth to early adulthood. We see the cruelties of her unhappy mother. We meet the uncle who rapes her. We grow close to her terminally ill brother. Dressed in plaid pajama bottoms and a baggy t-shirt, on a bare and simply lit stage, Aoife Duffin is by turns vulnerable and forceful. Amazingly, she presents each brutal moment with compassion, even if only the barest shred. It’s a shattering performance.

This is How We Die (Christopher Brett Bailey)
Holy bloody hell, does Christopher Brett Bailey have a way with language. Starkly lit, a stack of pages on the small table before him, the Canadian delivers a searing torrent of words and images. It’s a throwback to the beat poets that still feels achingly current. It’s an assault on your imaginative capacities. It’s a surrealistic surge that cannot be contained: there’s a cartwheeling swastika of a man, a cigarette-smoking mouse, a priest in the desert who may be an assassin. And then there’s Bailey, squirming in his seat and spitting consonants into the microphone. It’s about love and life and sex and death, and about language itself. And at the end, your brain will quiver, and the floorboards will vibrate.

Tar Baby (Desiree Burch and Platt Productions)
Setting herself up as a carnival performer—a canny move, given the history of minstrelsy—Desiree Burch takes us down a mind-bendingly long list of racial issues. In 90 minutes, the US-raised, London-based Burch tears through slavery, Facebook activism, Michelle Obama, the myth of post-raciality, Rachel Dolezal, police brutality, affirmative action, internalized racism, and how white people always want to touch black people’s hair. She incorporates a good bit of audience participation, too: we become sugar-harvesting slaves in the Caribbean, or try our strength at carnival games. Yet Burch is so commanding, and so often hilarious—behold her audition medley of black stereotypes—that Tar Baby feels neither overstuffed nor facile. And just wait for the monologue near the end, a galvanizing tirade about black rage.

Joseph Morpurgo: Soothing Sounds for Baby (The Invisible Dot Ltd)
Anybody who’s ever rummaged through a bin of old LPs knows that the discs are always good for a few giggles—get a load of that comb-over or that spangled unitard. But the impish Joseph Morpurgo knows the true comic potential of old, obscure records. Structured as an episode of Desert Island Discs—complete with patched-together dialogue from Kirsty Young—Soothing Sounds for Baby takes us through the comedian’s collection, from suave jazz musician Stanley Clarke to an A.A. Milne tale, which Morpurgo gives a Lovecraftian twist. At its core, it’s a tender story of young love lost, but it’s carried by Morpurgo’s gift for offbeat language: a pianist becomes an “ivory groper,” while a sad yet playful Brahms composition is “like playing origami with a will.”

A Game of You (Ontroerend Goed)
If you have plans to see A Game of You, stop reading now: this tricksy little show functions best if you go in blind. Technically the final part of a trilogy by provocative Belgian collective Ontroerend Goed, it’s a theatrical experiment that turns each ticket holder into both the watcher and the watched. You’re led, one by one, through heavy red curtains into a series of cramped rooms. As quickly becomes clear, this is a house of (two-way) mirrors. You’ll meet a few people, and you’ll have a few puzzling conversations. It’s a disquieting, strange experience that asks you to examine how you see strangers—and how they might see you. Some people will adore it. Others will want to flee.

Weekend Rockstars (Middle Child Theatre)
“This is what it feels like to be alive, pulsing around this beehive,” says stoner-hero Terry (Marc Graham). Indeed, this theatre/gig hybrid is full of buzzing energy, as if all the frustrations and joys of young adulthood had been bottled, shaken and left to fizz over an already sticky nightclub stage. Set in Sheffield, Weekend Rockstars follows Terry through a rough week. He’s sacked from Tesco. His girlfriend decides to move to London. There’s an incident with his drug dealer’s cat. It unfolds as a rock show, much of it sung in the style of The Streets. The story is a tad trite, and the video projections distract more than they add. But the songs are proper fun, and the five young, talented performers burst with heart—and, most impressively, never feel over-rehearsed.

887 (Ex Machina/Robert Lepage)
At the beginning of 887, Robert Lepage mentions the memory palace, a mnemonic device that involves visualizing a complex place and assigning information to each room. This autobiographical solo show makes the memory palace literal: Lepage, a Canadian known for his technical wizardry, shares the stage with a gorgeously intricate reconstruction of his family’s apartment building in Quebec City in the ’60s. At the time, French-speaking separatists were trying to establish a separate state, and Lepage intertwines historical anecdotes with stories from his youth and musings on the slipperiness of memory. It’s an overstuffed two hours—Lepage hangs the show on his attempts to memorize Michèle Lalonde’s “Speak White,” a poem resisting Anglophone hegemony—but still a visual marvel, down to the scale-model crown molding and glittering Christmas tree.

Light Boxes (Grid Iron)
Entering Light Boxes is like falling into a children’s book. Wood chips cover the floor, silver foil balloons float overhead, trees ring the walls, and the air smells of mint. The sound design—folksy strings, haunting vocals, electronic effects—is gorgeous. Scottish company Grid Iron have been creating immersive theatre for 20 years, and it shows. But the story, based on a 2010 novel by American Shane Jones, is a narrative morass. It’s about a father, mother and daughter trapped in a perpetual February in which the cold never ends—understandable to anyone who’s spent that cruel month well north of the Equator (Jones himself suffers from seasonal affective disorder). Flight of any sort—birds, hot-air balloons, kites—has been banned, and children keep disappearing. As resistance mounts, Light Boxes recalls Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, another dystopian tale about nature and war. But the stakes never reach real heights here, and the closing somberness feels unearned.

The Eulogy of Toby Peach (Toby Peach)
On day 7,962 of his life—that’s age 20, for the less mathematically inclined—Toby Peach got his cancer diagnosis. It was Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and it meant toxic drugs, teary conversations with his girlfriend, and risky stem-cell treatments. Now 26 and several years in remission, Peach presents his story as a playful monologue. The toughest thing about cancer, he says, is that your body produces the disease itself—it’s “a terrible one-man show where you play all the parts.” (He also likens unstoppable cellular reproduction to a sticky keyboard repeatedly typing the letter “i.”) Between the earnest self-disclosure and forays into science and history, we visit the Cancer Club, where Peach plays a Ray-Ban-wearing lounge lizard, proffering chemo cocktails and smarmy smiles. It’s an endearing, often funny take on a serious subject, if a little slick.

Man to Man (Wales Millennium Centre)
Inflation is crippling Weimar Germany. Boys show their political loyalties by pissing swastikas into the snow. Against this backdrop, Ella (Margaret Ann Bain) makes a daring move: when her husband dies, she adopts his identity—working as a crane driver, drinking at the pub, and enlisting when war arrives. German dramatist Manfred Karge’s 1982 play is a fractured prose-poem that unfolds with hallucinatory bleakness. This production, all shades of gray and brown, is appropriately dreary. But the technical effects—dramatic video projections, thundering sound effects—suggest co-directors Bruce Guthrie and Scott Graham don’t trust their audience’s intelligence. More than that, they don’t trust Bain, who moves between roles with phenomenal lyricism and vigor. Scampering up walls or dropping into a deep vocal register, she needs none of the accompanying fireworks.

The Christians (Gate Theatre)
Set in an American megachurch—the sort of place with a parking lot so massive you could get lost in it—Lucas Hnath’s new play unfolds as a series of sermons and theological debates. As it opens, pastor Paul (the engaging William Gaminara, with a chewy American accent) announces the church is newly debt-free. But he accompanies this exciting news with a bombshell: Hell doesn’t exist, at least not as a fire-and-brimstone dungeon ruled over by a horned devil. This unleashes a crisis of both faith and community among his congregants—Christopher Haydon’s production features a 24-member choir in purple robes—who start to decamp to a splinter church. It’s a smart and solid play, though sterile at times.

Flight Lessons
The makeshift stage is a balmy, nearly airless hotel room. But the conditions are fitting: the two main settings in Flight Lessons are a long-haul flight from London to Johannesburg, and a dusty Afrikaans town somewhere in the veld. Written by South African playwright Amy Jephta and performed by Saria Steyl, it’s a show about friendship, leaving home, and the interminable quest to construct (and reconstruct) our sense of self. Steyl inhabits the roles of two childhood friends: former top student Maya, who’s lived in London for nine years, and bad-girl Anika, who’s just attempted suicide—the event that sends Maya back home. Steyl has energy to spare, but the cliché-hampered script lacks freshness—which is to say nothing of the schmaltzy piano music soundtracking the more poignant moments.

Cut (Underbelly Productions)
A psychological thriller, written and directed by Duncan Graham, Cut shoots for Hitchcock but lands far short. The room has been arranged to resemble an airplane—the audience face one other across a narrow catwalk, while actor Hannah Norris plays our flight attendant. But the fragmented, hard-to-follow story lurches all over the place, incorporating an ash-eyed stalker, a woman with some very shiny scissors, and a fish being violently gutted and then lit on fire. Graham tries to embellish things with blackouts, pin-spot lighting and a clanging soundscape—while Norris does plenty of shrieking and gasping—but the result is theatrical turbulence rather than terror. Some clever use of cling wrap, though.

After We Danced (NoLogoProductions)
Fran (Rosie Bennett) and Finn (Samuel Freeman) meet in the wholesome, halcyon days of 1952. It’s summer on the English coast, the Ferris wheels are spinning, and the young’uns are smitten with each other. Good for them. Not so good for the rest of us. Writer-director Andy Moseley’s talky, saccharine love story plays out on a split stage, flipping between that blissful summer and Fran and Finn’s wedding—60 years later. It’s all quite well-intentioned, but the reasons for the couple’s split and their eventual reunion are trite, the characters are underdeveloped and the performances wooden—and just steel yourself for the cringeworthy, last-minute turn towards soap opera.

No Strings (Pop-Up Theatre Company)
Carolyn Duffin couldn’t have anticipated the hack of cheating website Ashley Madison, but that recent imbroglio makes quite the punchline to her new play. It’s essentially a morality tale about why infidelity is very, very bad—and how women can be very, very devious. Jamie (George Drever) and Shona (Duffin) meet at a no-frills hotel. She says it’s her first foray into anonymous sex. It’s his seventeenth. What follows is trite conversation about marital and personal discontent, and—for a show that says it’s “intended for adult viewing”—nothing particularly sexy. But what’s the takeaway here? Men are dumb horndogs? Women should harness their feminine wiles to rat them out? Whatever its intent, No Strings leaves a sour taste.