E15, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Focus E15 Hostel in east London isn’t the lap of luxury. Far from it – it’s the last resort of dozens of people who would otherwise end up on the streets. The dedicated mother and baby unit is a particular refuge for young women and their babies with no where else to go. That is, until the council serves them an eviction notice so they can sell the land to property developers. Promises of rehousing have been undermined by stories of families being moved outside of the borough, sometimes hours outside of London and away from everything they know. Angered by the unfeeling power government officials wield over their lives, the mothers from Focus E15 organise and launch an attack on those that favour profit over people. Their campaign is captured in verbatim play E15, a piece that is part political rally and part documentary.

One of the drawbacks to verbatim performance is that material is usually sourced in one-to-one interviews, so dialogue between characters is either limited or artificially constructed. Though this is evident here, placing much of the action within a protest or occupation keeps energy up, and monologuing makes more sense in this context. It would be great to see more in-depth character interaction though, particularly between the mothers, in order to develop a greater sense of the community their work hinges on.

The cast’s confidence and conviction are infectious, and the DIY-style set design lends a further sense of grassroots unity. The party that’s going on when the audience enters sets an upbeat, relaxed tone that soon shifts to the tenants’ grim reality – an excellent contrast.

Fortunately, the Focus E15 residents have some effect, but their campaign must on – what happened to them is happening to others. E15 successfully brings the audience to their side and encourages awareness and campaigning, but the verbatim text lacks the anger that is kept in check in the interview process. This is a story that would have more emotional immediacy with a script informed by their testimony rather than constructed from it. The production certainly has plenty of merit and is well performed by the ensemble cast but in this instance, the verbatim script serves to distance rather than bring these people fully to life.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

House + Amongst the Reeds, Yard Theatre

For better or worse so much of our life, personality and choices are shaped by relationships with family. A stable, loving upbringing can equip an individual with the same traits, and the opposite often ushers in a lifetime of hardship. House + Amongst the Reeds are two short plays presented as a double bill by Clean Break showing the consequences of family disruption on the lives of young people. Different in content and tone, both have their faults in their execution but lay bare a selection of issues in Western social and familial fabrics.

Oni and Gillian are two undocumented, homeless teenagers in Chino Odimba’s Amongst the Reeds. The two girls are the same age, and both ran away from abusive family members who their parents trusted to raise and educate in the UK. Nigerian Oni and Vietnamese Gillian are chalk and cheese, but when Oni promises of a house of their own where they can raise Gillian’s soon-to-be-born baby, education and good jobs once she receives her leave to remain, Gillian can’t resist. Tragically, youthful optimism and ignorance leads them to a very different place. 

An ambiguous ending leads to questions of what is and isn’t real, but the story is a powerful reminder that there are young people in similar situations hiding in plain sight up and down the country. They don’t need to be deported, they need to be placed with a caring family who can help them achieve the education and quality of life they deserve. 

The characterisation of both girls tends to generalise, but actors Rebecca Omogbehin and Jan Le endow them with heart. There are too many stereotypes present that blockpotential pathos, but the story is a strong one that needs to be refined and heard. 

House is structurally more developed with well-rounded characters, though there is a pronounced lack of background information that is alluded to in this mini kitchen sink drama. Mama is seeing her estranged, eldest daughter for the first time in years, and her younger daughter, the good devoted one, has a secret she needs to share. 

Writer Somalia Seaton tries to fit an overly tangled web into too short of a time for her characters to properly confront their issues, but the cast of three deliver some lovely performances. Shvorne Marks and Rebecca Omogbehin as sisters Patricia and Jemima have a fantastic chemistry, combining to amusingly wind up their traditional, Nigerian mum. There’s enough humour to lighten the complexity of the character’s volatile relationships, though the story is incomplete and patchy.

Though House is the more sophisticated piece, the execution of Amongst the Reeds is marginally better. The latter is simpler and with issues that leave more lasting impact, though the former has more scope for development into a stunning piece of contemporary naturalism.

Even though there are problems with both short plays, this double bill gives voice to sorely underrepresented demographics. Clean Break’s work is an absolutely vital contribution to the UK theatre landscape, and more companies need to follow suit.

House + Amongst the Reeds runs through 17 September.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

 

Team Viking, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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How far would you go for your best mate? Are there any limits, any lines, you wouldn’t cross?

What if your best friend was dying?

What if he asked you to ensure he had a viking funeral?

James Rowland does exactly that for his best friend Tom. He grew up as part of a neighbourhood trio that stayed close well into adulthood. As children, their favourite game was to play Vikings (as in the Kirk Douglas film). When Tom is diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 25 and given only a short time to live, he calls in one final favour from James and Sarah, the other third of their childhood gang. Tom doesn’t care about logistics and legalities, and his magnetic charisma convinces Sarah and James to do this for him, and James is here to tell us the story of their friendship through life and death.

Rowland’s engaging, laddish charm makes you laugh loads, then the tiniest change in pace and inflection turns on the tears. His script approaches death and friendship with respectful levity that does not gloss over the reality of grief, but neither is it too weighty. It’s a perfectly balanced emotional journey, and Rowland’s relaxed delivery draws the audience to him and to each other.

Director Daniel Goldman chooses simple staging – Rowland is on a small, bare stage with few props and tech, and the venue’s lighting is barely existent. The piece would work well in the round to foster it’s warmth and inclusivity. It’s simple, storytelling structure would also suit the intimacy of a circle.

Team Viking is an exemplary solo storytelling piece excelling in its honesty and simplicity. It’s a powerful tribute to his friends, but it’s not insular – it’s the complete opposite, and a truly delightful, heartwarming adventure story for those who have loved and lost.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Skin of the Teeth, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Nick is fearless. Literally, he can’t feel fear. The young man’s father finds this most unsettling and whilst Nick thinks it’s kinda cool, he desperately wants to find his shudder so he can fit in with everyone else in his small coastal town. When a mysterious stranger appears on the beach and offers to help, Nick jumps at the chance. This modern myth by Anna Beecher is a vibrant, young hero’s journey through a dark underworld of a solo performance with good potential.

Daniel Holme tells Nick’s story with sweet, wide-eyed naiveté, making the people he encounters in the big city after his father sends him away all the more threatening. The gang of men with green gloves who claim they will help him find his shudder through increasingly extreme tasks builds suspense and danger to a climax in Beecher’s script that Nick only vaguely understands. An open ending and some unanswered questions are a bit of a letdown, but otherwise her script is a good piece of storytelling.

Holme’s performance does a good job at keeping the audience’s attention, though more dramatic lighting design, projections and/or props would add visual variation and further increase the ebb and flow of his adventure. Beecher’s language contains some gorgeous moments of imagery and dystopia that certainly deserve to be supported further through a strong design concept and a larger space that grants more freedom of movement to Holme.

Skin of the Teeth is a strong character monologue that can work well on its own, but also has scope to develop further into an action-driven, multiple character script. The story is a good concept though in its current incarnation in a small venue, it is limited in its power. Beecher is a promising writer with dynamic ideas who, with more resources, has the power to make even greater impact.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

The Marked, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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It’s so easy to ignore the homeless people that line the periphery of routine journeys and forget they are just as human as the rest of us, with passions, fears and often troubled pasts. The Marked puts homeless young man Jack at the centre of a desolate, urban landscape populated with pigeons, people who move him on and demons from his past. Masks and puppetry add a richness to his story, but not always warmth. In most of Jack’s encounters, be they real or in his head, he is believably under threat.

Peter Morton’s puppets are sweet and whimsical, with Jack’s pigeon companion being particularly lovely and with an excellent range of movement. Jack as a child has a sadness to him, emphasised further by familial alcoholism that we can assume eventually drives him away from home.

Grotesque masks by Grafted Cede Theatre are skilfully used to differentiate between fantasy and reality, with the haunted, oversized faces ever in the back of Jack’s eyes. Zahra Mansouri’s costumes make these figures larger than life and all the more threatening, rendering Jack helpless in their presence and the audience to empathise.

Devised by the cast of three and presumably with the support of director Allin Conant, the spoken text centres around Jack’s encounters with a homeless couple, Pete and Sophie. Here is where the show falls short: the potential for conflict and tenderness amongst the three isn’t fully realised due to too few, underwritten scenes. Though these human characters ground Jack in reality somewhat, there is also little focus on the dichotomy of reality vs. demons. There is real potential for a fight for Jack’s life or sanity between the two forces, but the script doesn’t capture as much of Jack’s struggle as it could.

Visually, this is a wonderful production that makes some powerful points on the mental health of homeless people. Jack becomes a fully realised person through the creatures that haunt him, but his encounters with other humans don’t do him full justice.

The Marked tours nationally through 2017.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.