The Children, Manhattan Theatre Club

by NY guest critic Steven Strauss

American dramaphiles tend to view Britain as a hotbed of hyper-verbal and hyper-intellectual plays, especially in comparison to our home-bred musicals that often lack the same resonant depth. This is of course a gross over-generalization with countless exceptions, but personally, I became a card-carrying theatrical anglophile thanks to the massive transatlantic influx of Stoppardian texts in which characters talk talk talk about Serious and Important Ideas.

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Swansong and Road to Huntsville, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Though climate change has long been a problem, political theatre often ignores it. DugOut’s Swansong faces the issue head on, placing four survivors of a global flood in a swan pedalo. A capella songs and situation comedy bring plenty of joy and laughter to the boat, but the enormity of their survival and uncertain future weighs heavy. Will they find land, or will they kill each other first?

Like the start of a joke, hippy vegan Bobby, posh boy Steven, gym bunny Claire and nihilist Adam are on a boat, and have been for at least a little while now. They’ve already worked out exactly how to wind each other up, which generates the comedy that keeps Sadie Spencer and Tom Black’s script from becoming too heavy. The lightness contrasting the serious of their post-apocalyptic waterworld tips more towards comedy, but the balance mostly works. As they make plans for rebuilding the world to the vision they are creating from scratch in Bobby’s journal (obviously with plenty of arguments), there’s a natural progression towards eventuality – will they find land and survive, or will they all die on the pedalo?

The characters are rather stereotypical for the sake of comedy; despite this there are some poignant moments of understanding and empathy. They are effectively performed but somewhat lacking in depth, though sung interludes between scenes and the resolution help negate this unsatisfaction.

This spirited production is a relief from more sombre approaches to political issues, and a good laugh at that despite its shortcomings. Road to Huntsville is an entirely different beast, though the topic is just as infrequent on British stages. Theatre maker Stephanie Ridings stumbles across a documentary about women who fall in love with prisoners on America’s death rows. Thinking this could be the start of a new play, she latches onto the subject and delves into a world that she doesn’t understand, but doesn’t want to judge. As her research leads her further down the rabbit hole, she emerges in the “death penality capital” of the country, Huntsville, Texas.

Road to Huntsville shares Ridings’ process and turns it into a story of itself. More of a documentary, there are no preconceptions – we are in a theatre to hear about her findings. The curious but emotionally detached beginning takes its time to cave into emotional connection with the people she meets who are at the mercy of a state sanctioned killing machine. This show is a slow burner, but by the end, her passion and rage against the death penalty rally the audience to her side. Her frustrated helplessness hangs heavily in the air as she tries to return to normal life, then she does the same to us, sending us out into the busy joy of Summerhall. Though it makes for melancholy, lingering reflection, Ridings’ reminder that not everyone has the privilege of living in a country where the government won’t kill you if you commit a crime.

Swansong runs through 29th August, Road to Huntsville runs through 28th 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.

Generation Zero, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

A nameless couple meet online, fall in love and build a life together. Their lives are comfortably boring, with day jobs, road trips to the beach, holidays in a Yorkshire cottage and lazy weekends snuggling in bed, listening to records. They are almost identical to any contemporary middle class, suburban couple, but something’s not quite right.

Their world is just a bit off. They run out of gas, but they can’t go to the shop to top up their gas meter – they aren’t allowed to exceed their monthly allocation. There’s talk of restrictions on travel in order to cut pollution levels. He’s ambivalent about the environment, but she’s a political activist who devotes more and more of her time to a local group campaigning for change. He wants to spend more time with her, but she’s always out in the evenings, planning actions with the group, so he takes action of his own.

Becky Owen-Fisher’s debut play Generation Zero looks at the battle over the environment through the lens of a young couple in a poetic, episodic script that unsettles through it’s familiarity and the complacency with which (most? some?) people approach political issues. The story doesn’t viciously attack climate change, but takes a gentle, sinister approach that gets into your bones. Owen-Fisher has a good instinct for dialogue and imagery-laden narration that easily flows in and out of naturalism, adding just enough variation in style to keep the audience lightly unsettled.

Director Tom Fox attacks the script with lightening fast transitions; these could be slowed a bit for the sake of keeping up with the actions and the to-ing and fro-ing through time. Without sound and lighting signifiers, they would be totally unclear. Some important moments are also rushed, particularly towards the end, causing the gravitas they should have to be glossed over.More stylised physicality would also be welcome to coordinate with the stylistic changes in text.

The two actors are excellent; Jordan Turk and Francesca Dolan have a gorgeous chemistry that’s lovely to watch, made more romantic by dream-like lighting. The sheets and pillows covering strip lighting on the stage’s edge creates a lovely ethereal effect, destroyed by their reveal at a pivotal moment that also reveals the truth of their relationship’s dynamic – a great choice.

Perhaps some adjustments could be made to the script to transform it into more of a propaganda piece and place a stronger emphasis on the environmental collapse that is merely hinted at, but to do so would cause the piece to lose its delicacy. This is a promising play from an emerging writer with an important message that deserves to be heard.

Generation Zero runs through 29th 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.