On arriving in Edinburgh as Fringe season kicks off, it might seem perverse to spend the entirety of the next two days underground. In fact, for seasoned Fringe-goers, it's almost a reflex. The Traverse, as Scotland's new-writing theatre, has long been the most prestigious theatrical venue on the Fringe, and demands immediate investigation, which it repays in varying degrees.
This year's three flagship shows all concern themselves in different ways with the burdens of history, albeit that in Henry Adam's The People Next Door (****), it's the history we're currently living through. Young Nigel – half-Pakistani, a bit of a stoner and in his own words "mental" – wants nothing more than a quiet life in his housing association flat where he can fashion himself into a third-rate Ali G. When a vicious, amoral policeman coerces him into doing undercover work at a mosque which is allegedly a terrorist haven, Adam's play begins to fizz through issues of community, society and race relations on both a global and a local scale, as Nigel bonds with black teenager Marco and elderly Scots neighbour Mrs Mac. Sometimes Adam makes his points or tweaks his narrative a bit too blatantly, but it's all done with such dynamism and fun that no-one could hold it against him.
David Harrower's Dark Earth (***) is equally complex and more pensive, but ultimately feels less focused. When a young couple's car breaks down near the Antonine Wall, they find themselves dependent on the kindness of a Lowlands farming family about to go to the wall economically. The urban-versus-rural contrast, the dark financial labyrinth of contemporary subsistence, odd historical echoes of the Jacobite rebellion and the Roman occupation, and the inevitable sexual tension, jostle against one another. Philip Howard's production is beautifully nuanced, and it's consistently thought-provoking, but I must admit that many of those thoughts were about what exactly it was that Harrower was intending to make us think about.
After the hugely fêted Gagarin Way, Gregory Burke was conscious of being faced with "difficult second play" syndrome. I'm afraid that, for my money, The Straits (**) is almost a textbook example thereof. Neil Warmington's design of a rocky outcrop in the shape of a cross of St George is magnificent; Steven Hoggett's gratuitous movement sequences may lead to apprehension that the writers' company Paines Plough is becoming colonised by Hoggett's outfit Frantic Assembly. But strip away the production values, and the play itself – a look at adolescent rites-of-passage, heterosexuality and homosociality, against a resonant political backdrop (Gibraltar during the Falklands war) – is the sort of thing one could imagine seeing at any number of Fringe venues. That star rating may be harsh, but it reflects my genuine disappointment.
Of the shows in the smaller Traverse Two space, Stella Feehily's Duck (***) is an immensely engaging and vibrant slice of young female Dublin life, taking in dodgy clubs, literary begrudgery, family claustrophobia and the perennial desire to find a place and a role for oneself. With subject matter that drives her a little harder to express it, Feehily will a first-rate writer. Tim Crouch's My Arm (****) is one of those bizarre finds. Crouch narrates, in the first person, the story of a boy who spent thirty-odd years holding his right arm above his head. What began as a whimsical notion comes to be invested with various values by his family, then by child psychologists, and finally by the world of Britart. Crouch tells his tale with the aid of a video camera trained on a table-top and a selection of everyday items borrowed from the audience, so giving a practical demonstration of the way the viewer imbues things with significance.
Heather Raffo's Nine Parts Of Desire (**) is more or less "I am Iraqi woman, hear me roar": a series of intercutting monologues of various everyday characters in and around the current situation. There is insight and emotional power here, but also a certain self-satisfaction on Raffo's part, as if her perspective were privileged simply by dint of her status as an Iraqi-American. Napoleon In Exile (***) by Chris Goode – a tale of amnesia and delusion, in which a man with total memory loss is wooed by a woman who believes she is the French emperor – is diverting on all kinds of levels, but its divers musings never really coalesce. And Tam Dean Burn is a magnificent actor on his day, but his day can be infuriatingly rare, and Sniperculture (*) isn't it; instead, this retelling of the Medea story in the world of modern rock music is a tatter of poor-theatre self-indulgence for which the phrase "ageing enfant terrible" might have been coined.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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