by Laura Kressly
The Paines Plough Roundabout is the most reliable, new writing venues at the fringe. With a collection of work that represents the width and breadth of the UK both geographically and thematically, this year’s offerings are universally strong. From a family musical to a one-man show about a stalker, and everything in between, there is a great selection of shows for audiences looking for new work in a great venue that tours around Britain.
Eilidh lives with her gran on a fictitious, Scottish island whilst her mum earns a living on the mainland. There are few prospects for young people on Kinnon. The school has closed, and there are few jobs, but Eilidh loves the island, its people and its mythic history shaped by the rhythms of the sea. Also similar to the sea and its tides is the show’s music, sung a capella and layered through live mixing and sound loops. As the island prepares for a vote that could change its future, Eilidh meets a girl on the beach she has never seen before. Eilidh and Erin slowly get to know each other, but she must come to terms with the fact that her view of the world isn’t definitive and nothing lasts forever. Islander is a gorgeous new musical for people of all ages inspired by folk tales and village life, about friendship, family, growing up and accepting change.
Charley Miles wrote last year’s hit Blackthorn, this year she brings Daughterhood, proving she excels at writing detailed characters with life-long relationships defined by their stickiness. Here, sisters Pauline and Rachel reunite in their rural family home, far away from London where Rachel has made a life full of work, activism and friends. Pauline’s world is smaller and quieter as she cares for their bed-bound, terminally ill father. There is little love between them, but each moment is imbued with resentment, guilt and tension. Zipping through their time, we see them healthier and happier, juxtaposing their present, hostile reality with idealistic pasts. The conflict between familial responsibility and pursuit of independence and a career come to a head in this poignant and emotive clash of wills. Following Islander is a clever programming choice, what with their common use of attempting to save a beached whale as a metaphor for helplessness.
On the Other Hand, We’re Happy is an outstanding representative from Welsh theatre by Daf James. This dramaturgically complex tragedy/love story follows Abbi and Josh’s relationship, beginning with their come-down from a night on MDMA when Abbi declares that she wants a baby. Their love deepens as they buy a house, try for a child and decide to pursue adoption. They are a the perfect ‘every-couple’ until Abbi’s sudden death, but Josh still desperately wants to be a dad. He continues the adoption process alone, culminating in a meeting with his daughter’s birth mother. A constantly fluctuating landscape of grief and love define this play as it thwarts expectations and challenges preconceptions about women who surrender their children for adoption.
How To Be Brave is simpler fare, but top of the list for energy. The monologue by Sian Owen is produced by Dirty Protest, the same company that brought Sugar Baby to the fringe previously. In this one-woman show, Katie explores a myriad of ways that little girls can be brave, even if she’s not feeling so brave herself anymore. As her Little One readies for a medical procedure, Katie bottles her courage and goes on a surreal escapade around Newport in an attempt to escape this thing that absolutely terrifies her. Her childhood lurks in the shadows as she trespasses, steals and runs around her hometown in search of bravery that she can pass onto her daughter. It’s meandering and fantastical – occasionally too much so – but its spirit of female adventure is worthy of celebration.
Punk-poet Brigitte Aphrodite, creator of 2017’s gig-theatre show My Beautiful Black Dog, draws on the young people she works with to create Parakeet. A young, gay woman and her mum have recently moved to Margate from London, and she’s feeling incredibly out of place – like the parakeets in London’s parks that she loves so much. Fortunately, she makes friends with the girl next door who invites her to join her band and change the world. And they do. This colourful, punk crusade to save the local birds also smashes the patriarchy and highlights the power that young people have to make change. Though it takes awhile to find its feet and establish the story, once it does so, it’s a joyful depiction of teen girls.
Award-winning comedian Richard Gadd has crossed over to theatre with his monologue about his stalker. Baby Reindeer is a harrowing and explicit account beginning with his first encounter with Martha, a woman who came into the London pub where he worked. Her attention seemed minor enough, until she began coming in everyday, going to all his stand-up gigs, calling his dad’s work, and emailing and phoning dozens of times a day. The police couldn’t do anything until she clearly threatened him, which meant he endured her obsession for several years. Though this is a compelling story excellently told, it’s also extremely uncomfortable – though the woman’s identity is disguised and Gadd acknowledges several times that she is mentally unwell, using her actions to create a piece of performance is uncomfortably exploitative, particularly as he recognises that she will undoubtedly know about the show and may even be in the audience, despite the restraining order against her.
These six shows make up the bulk of the Roundabout’s productions that run over the whole length of the fringe. They are universally strong, often provocative and generally convincingly told. It’s another great year for Paines Plough at the Fringe.
All shows run through 25 August in Edinburgh.
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