Forest Fringe Digest: Part Two

A male photographer is photographing a female celebrity who is tired of being so superficial. She wants this photo shoot to show her “true self”. She wants to be “real”, and we’re all hanging out in the studio with them in Action Hero’s Wrecking Ball. Audience expectations are immediately challenged on entry when invited to grab a beer from a cooler onstage, and this boundary remains blurred for the duration. Communication is attempted between the two characters, but neither is really listening and what they say doesn’t really have any meaning, pointedly ironic in characters striving for stripped back honestly. The performance is both funny and uncomfortable as the audience watches their professional relationship cross into the manipulative personal. This is a text-based performance with imagery rich language highlighting the absurdity of their encounter, but it triggers a good amount of reflection on our own behaviour. We all carefully construct our images, particularly in social media, yet at the same time we want to be genuine (whatever that means). This is an excellent, polished piece that is provocative in subject and the actor-audience relationship.

Search Party’s My Son & Heir is without question the funniest thing I’ve seen this year in Edinburgh. Real-life couple Pete Phillips and Jodie Hawkes playfully examine the prospects of their young son, born in the same year as ‘baby Cambridge.’ The two little boys have little in common, though. Pete and Jodie share their hopes for their son in a cheerful, pink chaos that soon disintegrates into relentless judgments on their parenting methods and a stream of ‘what ifs’ capturing the anxiety and pressure to raise a perfect child. The message evokes sympathy and reflection, even from those without children. It’s an outstanding blend of comedy and social commentary on the perils of being an ordinary parent without heaps of cash to throw at your child. Their gleeful, child-like anarchy quickly turns vicious, creating pointed contrast between the haves and have-nots, but ends in a message of love. Perhaps the ending tends towards sentimental, but in a world where money is a large factor in success and a good life, it is also an ending of hope.

Last up is Christopher Brett Bailey’s This Is How We Die, a spoken word and music performance that is deceptively simple but leaves you with overloaded senses and a feeling of having traveled around the world at a million miles a second. When I first saw This Is How We Die at Battersea Arts Centre several months ago, I was so moved that I wrote two responses: an immediate visceral reaction that probably isn’t particularly well written followed by a reasoned review. I wanted to experience this piece in a smaller space, and Forest Fringe did not disappoint. Bailey’s delivery was more intimate and personal, and sitting in the front row was a full-blast experience. This piece isn’t for everyone, though. A couple of people walked out, and responses have been polarized; you either love this piece or you hate it.

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Forest Fringe Digest: Part One

As Edinburgh Festival Fringe has become more and more mainstream with success often determined by a large budget and a slot in one of the top six or so venues, truly experimental, progressive work doesn’t get as much attention anymore. Fortunately, Forest Fringe has re-calibrated the focus with a curated festival, independent of the fringe since 2007, creating a space where true experimentation is encouraged, and operating on a financial model that means all performances are free.

For two weeks, they are filling Out of the Blue Drill Hall with performance, live art, installations and other works that defy categorization. Their programme is astonishingly varied, providing a platform for emerging and established artists to present work. Forest Fringe also gives audiences a focal point rather than having to wade through thousands of shows in the fringe programme to find truly innovative work. I could happily take up residence at Forest for the duration of the festival, but have to limit my choices. Starting with Volcano’s Black Stuff and ending with Christopher Brett Bailey’s This Is How We Die, I also experience Made in China’s new show, Tonight I’m Gonna Be the New Me, Action Hero’s Wrecking Ball, Eggs Collective’s work in progress Late Night Love and Search Party’s My Son & Heir.

A walk to a “secret location” ends in a dimly lit warehouse for Volcano’s show about the effects of coal mining. It is a promenade production that literally destabilises the audience, who have to walk over a floor covered with large chunks of the black stuff. Four actors taking on roles both historical and fictitious physically capture miners’ suffering in horrific working conditions. Disappointingly, in a piece with such a focus on introducing the characters at the beginning, their individual stories are neglected in favour of the visual and aural. Some of the metaphors make sense, like the animalistic dining scene showing the reduction of the miners to baser creatures, others are less clear. I still don’t understand the incorporation of Anna Karenina and playing cricket in their pants. Black Stuff is surreal and abstract, but so much so that any message or idea trying to be communicated is almost completely lost.

Late Night Love is a sweetly nostalgic, and very funny, piece revolving around a phone-in radio show the three members of Eggs Collective listened to as teenagers. Having not grown up in the UK, I missed a lot of the cultural references, but the teenaged idealism about love and relationships is universal. Power ballads and dating conventions are gently mocked, but lovingly remembered. The two-way radios on each table are underused, but an interesting device that places the audience inside the radio show listened to in the dark. Though quite structurally loose at this point, it’s a show that speaks fondly of a specific era and development stage of teenage girls.

Made in China’s Tonight I’m Gonna Be the New Me blurs the line between truth and fiction through founders Tim Cowbury’s and Jessica Latowicki’s real-life relationship laid bare onstage. The premise is that Tim has written the show that Jess performs as Tim runs the lights and takes notes at the back. Jess dances inside a metal box wearing sequined hotpants and a halter top, an object for our delectation, and presumably Tim’s. She soon hijacks the script that descends into the two picking at each other’s faults, empowering herself as the audience are voyeurs of their argument. What is truth and what is fiction? This blurring is far more interesting to consider than the argument typical of a long-term relationship that unfolds. The made-up story of Tim’s death returns the piece solidly to fiction, again made more interesting in the idea of fantasizing about a partner’s death (we all do it!) than the story itself. I expected the content of Tonight I’m Gonna Be the New Me to be far edgier than it was, though the ideas within the performance are certainly fascinating on several levels.

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.