Bechdel Testing Life, The Bunker

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Women don’t always talk about men.
Women don’t always talk about men.
Women don’t always talk about men.

It bears repeating because it’s often forgotten, ignored or not believed. Popular culture is particularly deaf to the sentiment, and theatre still likes to rely on this inaccurate gender trope. Whilst this has been slowly changing for some time, particularly on the fringe, it’s still a problem.

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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.

Beetles From the West, Lion & Unicorn Theatre

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Half of the UK population born after 1960 will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime. Considering this figure, cancer rarely features as the primary subject matter in theatre, though last year there were several productions that put it at the forefront. I caught two of them in Edinburgh: The Eulogy of Toby Peach and Goodstock. James Hartnell’s debut play, Beetles From the West, is also driven by a diagnosis. Set in a hospital waiting room, immature Boyd waits with his girlfriend for news of his father’s health after a sudden collapse that’s left him unconscious. A young doctor’s attempts to explain what’s going on are aggressively questioned as Boyd comes to terms with what it all means. Hartnell’s script, obviously early career from its unwieldy text and underdeveloped characters, spotlights the importance of cancer screenings but it needs more development to have greater impact.

A combination of flowery, metaphor-filled monologues directed to the audience and simplistic scenes between the characters attempts to show range, but they are so dramatically different that they seem spoken by different characters. Dialogue paints Boyd (Ryan Penny) and his girlfriend Jenny (Amy Doyle) as immature and ignorant young teenagers. Their monologues have a more mature gravitas, but these contrasting tones don’t reconcile. The transitions in the writing are abrupt and jarring, creating an unconvincing baseline reality. Hartnell has a sense of dramatic arc and a satisfying ending that suits an awareness piece, but individual scenes and monologues sit clumsily within it. The script does manage not to preach, though.

There’s little subtlety or depth in the characters despite their dialogue, but Penny, Doyle and Matthew Marrs as the doctor attack them with gusto. Penny also directs, and favours heightened performances – though this might suit the language, it clashes with the thematic content. It’s an interesting choice, but not one that consistently works. There are some moments of good chemistry, particularly when the doctor reveals details of his own past – though highly unprofessional and unlikely to happen in the real world.

Beetles From the West shows cancer isn’t a battle, it’s a disease we are just as likely to get as not. It reminds us to monitor our mental and physical health and have symptoms investigated, something men are more likely to neglect than women. This is definitely a men’s health play, though it doesn’t alienate women. It’s just a shame that the script doesn’t do the themes justice or give the performers properly developed, meaty roles.

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.