Part of the Picture, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Peppered across the North Sea, giant metal birds stretch towards the sky and drill into the seabed below, hunting for life-giving oils and gasses. Along their wide bellies, men work day and night to keep them moving in dangerous, dirty conditions. The money’s good, and the work is plentiful.

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He(art), Theatre N16

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Chalk and cheese Alice and Rhys debate whether to purchase a painting in an art gallery. Simultaneously, siblings Kev and Sam hatch a plan to fund a life-saving procedure for their ill mum that the NHS won’t cover. Running at just over an hour, writer Andrew Maddock fits in the nature of art and its criticism, public health, social class, poverty and loyalty across two very different sets of characters in the same neighbourhood. It’s a lot for 65 minutes and whilst it’s not enough time to fully explore these themes, the play doesn’t feel crowded. Though the direction and performances are intuitive and finely tuned, Maddock’s outstanding verse poetry and use of non-naturalism is sorely missed in this surprising diversion from his trademark style.

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Adler & Gibb, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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I was gutted when I found out Janet Adler and Margaret Gibb aren’t real. The portrait Tim Crouch paints of this fictional couple and their anti-capitalist approach to their art, in striking contrast to a deranged Method actor and her coach making a film about Adler’s life, is so well-formed that they feel that that they can’t not be real. Even though the reality of these characters is so detailed through their dialogue, Crouch’s staging and choreography is wholly unrealistic and often absurd, a work of art in itself. This rigid stylisation, though eventually giving way, rebels against convention just as the characters do. These two sets of characters and the staging battle for dominance in a wonderfully compelling and disturbing commentary on the ownership, commodification and nature of art and its creators.

A nameless student begins with a lecture, and intersperses scenes with a discourse on Janet Adler’s life and work, shaping and contextualising the woman that actor Louise discusses with zealous devotion. Despite these strong feelings, Louise is unmoving, staring straight ahead. Her teacher Sam is the same; though their voices have some emotion, their bodies are rigid as they stare through they audience. Adler’s widow, Margaret, assumes the same style when she first appears. A boy moves any necessary props, wearing wireless headphones with instructions whispered to him by a woman sitting upstage with a microphone. Some of the props are appropriate to the action, some totally absurd. The boy’s innocence and movement is powerfully accentuated amongst the stillness; though he is a child, he has control of all physical action rather than the adults. The sculptural staging with juxtaposed power becomes a thoughtful commentary on art’s relationship with its audience, something Adler may have approved of.

Though the performances aren’t wooden in the least, the distance they maintain through roughly half of the play is frustrating, albeit canny. It works as a concept within a play about art and the detailed characters are built through dialogue, but the initial lack of connection between them leaves a gaping void.

Cath Whitefield endows Louise with a fanatical “I will stop at nothing” attitude that’s both satisfying to look down on and be disturbed by. Her and Sam’s visit to the house where Adler and Gibb last lived and their subsequent choices are a potent critique of the Method acting technique, as well as any other justification of awful behaviour for the sake of making art. Her character’s abrasiveness effectively generates empathy for Adler’s widow Margaret, ferociously played by Gina Moxley, who also shows moving tenderness when faced with the memories of her partner.

The richness of the characters and the feeling that they live beyond this play is the strength of Crouch’s writing, but the messages contained therein are important to consider. Who does art belong to once it’s in front of an audience? Where are the boundaries of an homage to the dead? Who do any resulting accolades belong to? It’s certainly thought-provoking stuff to consider the lineage of the cultural products we consume. Despite all the good intentions in the world, what damage may have been caused in the research and making of that book/film/play/artwork/song that we consume so casually?

Adler & Gibb runs through 27th August.

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.

Botallack O’Clock, Old Red Lion Theatre

Roger Hilton was an abstract artist working in Cornwall until his death in 1975. As alcoholism and ill health took hold, he confined himself to a basement bedroom and studio, prolifically churning out work in the middle of the night. Modelling Hilton’s experimental work, playwright Eddie Elks (of Mugs Arrows acclaim) has crafted an unconventional dialogue between an ageing, ill man finding late-night solace in his art, and his radio. Elks begins in naturalism, then surreal expressionism sets in like a lucid dream. The mind of an artist is an unusual, hard to pin down thing inventively captured and well performed in Botallack O’Clock, accompanied by the sadness of approaching death and the need to leave a legacy.

Ken McClymont’s set recreates Hilton’s studio/bedroom with excellent accuracy and detail, and a bit of theatre trickery further enhances the surrealism and absurdity. Photographic projections reinforce the authenticity of the set, complete with drying paintings strung around the periphery and paintbrushes everywhere. A 1960’s radio benignly sits centre stage next to a desk with paper and paints. With Dan Frost as an angular Roger folded on the corner of a mattress and the radio next to him, they become equals. The wardrobe on the back wall is also more than it appears, as are the walls themselves. Particularly bizarre but wonderful moments include the old man struggling to be reborn through the wall and Roger’s energetic bogey with a surprise visitor.

The power in this script is the juxtaposition of the profundity and truth in Roger’s dialogue with his radio, and the veering away from reality that happens soon after insomnia slowly wakes him. It surprises and disarms; Roger’s negotiation of this alteration is charming and confessional, provoking reflection on one’s own mortality. But it’s also deliciously funny and sweet, though begins to feel too long about fifteen minutes before the end.

Dan Frost is not an old man, but endows his physicality with the creaky weight of age. This is simply cast off, like his glasses, when he gleefully reflects on his art school days in Paris. Frost’s vocal rhythm is quick and short, forcing the audience to really listen to and process Elks’ script. Frost is complimented by the dulcet tones of George Haynes as the Radio. 

Botallack O’Clock is, in essence, a simple conversation between a man and his subconscious but Elks’ creativity and skill makes it seem like more than that.  There are some delightful surprises along the way and a range of styles are used to examine our intimate relationships with our work, our possessions and our inevitable deaths – a thoughtful, reflective piece is thinly veiled under the humour and Frost’s abrupt delivery. Though we empathise with Roger throughout, all of us are alone in our twilight years, and we are the sole leading players in our own narratives.

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.