Love Letters from Blackpool & My Kind of Michael, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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by guest critic Rebecca JS Nice

Four years ago, Ruth Cockburn pulled me off the street from the misery of the rain and the festival blues and into the bottom of a tapas restaurant. Cockburn was glowing amidst the bright yellow and blues of the slightly odd venue typical of the fringe festival and she manged to charm an audience more intent on sheltering from the rain than anything else. She became one of my magical fringe finds who touch your heart by chance.

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Revelations, Summerhall

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by Laura Kressly

James Rowland’s trilogy about his best mates Tom and Sarah began with Team Viking two years ago on the free fringe. A Hundred Different Words for Love followed, and the story now comes to a close with the funny and tragic process of growing up that begins with donating sperm to Sarah and her partner Emma.

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The Ballad of the Apathetic Son and the Narcisisstic Mother, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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by Laura Kressly

Lucy and her son Raedie have grown apart in recent years. Lucy is worried that her son lacks empathy, and Raedie thinks his mum is full of herself. Both of them love Aussie pop star Sia though, so they use her music, dance and physical theatre to explore their relationship and reconnect with each other in this real-life mother and son show.

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Alma: A Human Voice, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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By Laura Kressly

Alma Margaretha Maria Schindler was the wife of three famous artists and the lover of a fourth. A composer herself, her achievements are overshadowed by the men she loved. It’s the typical tragic narrative of talented women from the past, and this show unfortunately perpetuates it. 

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Remember to Breathe, Equations for a Moving Body, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Two women, in two different shows set on opposite sides of the world, swim as if their lives depend on it. One is training for an ironman-length triathlon, the other never learnt to swim and is doing so to overcome a fear of water. Equations for a Moving Body is Hannah Nicklin’s solo performance telling the story of her decision to complete an ironman and the research she did to discover what would happen to her body as she trains. Remember to Breathe follows fictional Maeve away from the safety of family and a secure job in Ireland, to world travels that eventually find her in New Zealand. Though Hannah and Maeve approach swimming completely differently, the sport shapes who they are and how they deal with obstacles that come their way.

Maeve and her kiwi husband Grant are back in Ireland when the Christchurch earthquake hits. The Celtic Tiger has been and gone, and their business is struggling so they decide to head to the southern hemisphere to help rebuild. It’s here that Maeve discovers a pool in the wreckage, staffed by the relentlessly perky Doreen. In that pool, Maeve gently catalogues her life through her relationship to her father. He and Doreen fade in and out again like memories in this quiet, reflective piece on family and finding your place in the world.

Liz Fitzgibbon as Maeve has a calm strength and enigmatic presence. This everywoman of a character with relatable struggles trying to find peace is a reassuring story to witness, though the lack of outright conflict between characters makes for a sleepy pace.

Julie Sharkey as Doreen and David Heap has Maeve’s earthy, grounded father are great foils constructed by writer Orla Murphy. As well as Maeve’s personal journey that she comes to terms with through swimming, there’s a pointed throughline of the effects of the economy on the common man – a clever inclusion making the script universally relevant.

Maeve swims and came to it in her adult life, but Hannah is a swimmer and has been doing so since she was four. Hannah explains the difference between “I swim” and “I’m a swimmer” and the role goals and life events have in shaping one’s identity. Her decision to complete an ironman in the year she turned 30 becomes a part of who she is and how she lives her life, and Equations for a Moving Body is the moving story of the ups and downs of pushing your body to its limits.

The most engaging focus of Hannah’s story is the people she meets along her training journey. She has a gift for making John, Tom and the various scientists she meets along the way come alive, even if they only feature for brief moments. These encounters provide landmarks that make her story stand out from anyone else’s and excellent focal points of her narrative structure.

The story’s climax is the triathlon, with peaks and troughs that are magnified versions of those in her training. It’s a hugely satisfying and emotional end to a story of struggle, grief and triumph. Those who aren’t much for sport or fitness who find her initial goal baffling are on side at by the finish line.

Nicklin uses live internet use to support her story and add a visual element to the production. Though simple, it’s a great choice. These are almost all accompanied by her narrative, though one section is poignant in its silence and elucidates the source of the show’s name.

Hannah cements her sense of self through her training and its end goal, and Maeve finally finds the peace she is searching for. Both productions are lovely, if very different stories of personal discovery at Summerhall.

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.

Us/Them, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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On 1 September 2004, a group of terrorists stormed a school in Beslan, holding over a thousand people hostage on the first day back after summer holidays. Most of them were children. When the siege ended three days later, over 300 people were dead. Part history lesson and part dramatherapy storytelling, two actors playing unnamed children who were hostages in the crisis re-enact the events of those three days. The childlike seriousness, quiet bickering and playful staging in Us/Them provides an excellent, contemplative lens through which to view world disasters.

Gytha Parmentier and Roman van Houtven are a soft spoken girl and boy who take pride in their school and their education. They go to the best one in town, and it’s near a wonderful forest. On the other side of the forest is the border, and across the border, children don’t go to school, the men are pedophiles and the women have moustaches. They view the world in black and white, everything is simple and explained in a matter of fact delivery. Whilst they show little fear, as hours stretch into days, the heat and dehydration take a toll on their bodies. Through their tiredness, they try to make sense of the terrorists’ demands and work out what they have to make them let them go. Their naivety is both heart wrenching and warming, rather than condemn they want to please everyone and carry on living their lives in peace.

The script is mostly narration, with some quibbling between the two on how certain moments panned out. More dialogue between the two would be welcome, but the design choices keep the narration from becoming too repetitive. It is description heavy, accented with colourful, abstract staging – childrens’ coats hang on the back wall, a web of unravelled string slows them down so as not to startle the terrorists. Their movements are angular, with leaps, falls and physical play. The bombs they rig around the gymnasium where they are held are balloons. Whilst the imagery and text is childlike, the undercurrent of danger and horror is inescapable, and the quiet honesty is wholly riveting.

Children are so often the faces of global tragedies that rally sympathy and action. Think of the little boy washed up on the beach, the tiny Syrian airstrike victim staring into the middle distance in the back of an ambulance. Whilst their images are splashed across the news and social media, they are rarely heard from. Perhaps if they were given a platform to air their experiences and perspectives, the adults that run the world would be less inclined to mindlessly retaliate against violent acts. Us/Them, rather than having an in-yer-face aggressive, political agenda, intuitively uses text and staging to convey a powerful, lingering request to listen and be kind, no matter how foreign we are to each other.

Us/Them 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.

Declaration, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Sarah wants to know everything. She’s inquisitive, gregarious and energetic, the life and soul of any party. But now that she’s in her thirties and wants to start a family, she needs to sort out some of her issues. So, she goes to a doctor to talk through all the behaviour quirks she’s had since childhood – the trouble sleeping, the irrational impulses, the disorganisation, the obsessions.

Diagnosis: ADHD.

Now that she knows what the problem is, does it really solve anything? Will a label help, or hinder? Will medication change the person that she’s always been and actually quite likes? Declaration is an honest, heartwarming solo performance that resonates with those of us who have always felt a bit different or care about people who are a bit weird or quirky. Written and performed by Sarah Emmott, with energy and charisma that’s undeniable, Declaration needs a few minor adjustments to make it an even slicker show.

Emmott’s script has the consistent theme of wanting to please but pesky impulses to do all sorts of irrational things get in the way. As an adult, she has developed coping mechanisms (which she marvelously demonstrates with audience help), but as a child, she was a loose cannon. The story of her childhood picks up once she introduces the superhero personal she invented for herself and a doll, Samantha, who is everything that she never could be. The opening exposition, though having important information, lacks the punch and the belly laughs that these sections have. Additionally, some of her transitions need clarity; consistent use of sound, lighting or changing props would help indicate a scene change.

Emmott develops a marvellous rapport with the audience from the moment they enter the theatre. She has the sort of natural magnetism that cannot be taught in any drama school, an innate quality that actors either have or don’t. Laughing and chatting, her stated need to know everything and everyone is evident. The audience rallies to her wide-eyed wonder, and snarky comments about school, doctors and other frustrations get plenty of laughs.

As Sarah works out how to get through life and a diagnosis has the potential to either change everything or nothing, the audience is with her the entire way. She uses props and audience interaction effectively, though she could use tech to further enhance the theatrical experience. Her lovable on-stage persona is a charming reminder that anyone we know may be struggling with mental health, learning or behaviour issues, and even though a few tweaks could be made to improve the show, she dares us to accept her, flaws and all.

Declaration was a one-off performance.

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.

Lines, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Every Londoner has strong feelings about the tube. They love it, hate it, love to hate it, depend on it, avoid it, sometimes all at once. In Lines, Rose Bruford students pay homage to the underground by extracting individuals from the millions of faces that blur through stations each day. A collage of movement, narration and dialogue captures the diversity of the city with a lovely affection, but the tangled, underdeveloped plot threads that emerge aren’t followed through.

Writer Ian Horgan has numerous lovely ideas but none of them, even the fictional disaster that has the power to unite passengers, is chosen as the narrative spine. Whilst this adds to the montage effect of individual moments, it’s a format that only works for short periods of time. There are certainly some great stories of individual characters and any of them could be short plays in and of themselves, but here they are unsatisfying. The sections of spoken word vary in the quality of delivery, but this is a style that Horgan uses inconsistently. The use of live music is much more regular, and a great contribution to the piece.

There are some great performances, as should be expected from drama school students. No one stands out as a weak link and their time training together has formed a seamless ensemble. Lines also has the distinction of one of the more ethnically diverse productions of the fringe, which in and of itself is hugely commendable.

Though this affectionate tribute to London transport has plenty of potential, it falls short of true excitement or innovation in its current form.

Lines runs through 15th 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.