Stoopud Fucken Animals / Night Time / Believe / Pit / The Art Of Swimming / Venus As A Boy /
Long Time Dead / The Walworth Farce / Johnson And Boswell: Late But Live

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
, 2007
*** / ** / *** / ** / **** / *** / *** / *** / ***

It has been a slow start to this year's Edinburgh Fringe, with no shows so far generating a strong buzz. Mind you, any year would pale in comparison to the seismic kick-off in 2006 with Gregory Burke's Black Watch. Its co-producers the Traverse Theatre are once again using the old Drill Hall as a venue, temporarily designated Traverse 3 in keeping with its two year-round companions off Lothian Road. Instead of the huge, reverberating hangar-like space used last year for military drilling and combat sequences, however, it now houses a large polygonal tent (the sometime touring venue of Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre, in fact), within which this year's offerings play to an audience about three-quarters in the round.

I have only seen two shows in Trav 3 so far. Joel Horwood's Stoopud Fucken Animals is a Suffolk family drama set against a background of economic and agricultural decline and third-rate country music. Horwood, still in his mid-twenties, is already a skilled writer, but he never quite brings this tale into focus; its various plot threads hang tattered side by side instead of being woven together. Robert Goodale, though a fine actor, has to struggle to approach even the modest musical skills of his character Lefty. Alas, Night Time by Selma Dimitrijevic is even less worth bothering with. In three interminable scenes we see a woman trying to escape an abusive relationship: first she calls on a peeping-tom neighbour, then spends the night with an affable amnesiac before incomprehensibly returning home. Perhaps. It may be all in her mind. We don't particularly care. Kananu Kirimi heads an excellent cast who are far more dedicated than the play deserves; Lorne Campbell's deliberately low-key production offers no hooks for an audience. Most of all, whether or not the viewpoint character is delusional, hers is the only viewpoint we are consistently offered and it is that all men are ultimately too demanding, too possessive, too stifling. Corresponding misogyny would not be tolerated, but this misandry passes apparently unquestioned.

The Traverse gives each season a one- or two-word label, and I must say it is easier than usual to find connections with this year's theme "Faithful", whether that faith be held to a religion, a loved one or a cherished project or value. Linda Marlowe's solo show Believe is among the most obvious, re-casting the stories of four Old Testament women in modern-day terms and language. It is solid work from an actress who is always compelling, but it feels more like an exercise for Marlowe to keep her hand in than a motivated piece of work in its own right. Pit is a revival of a piece much admired at Glasgow's Arches last year. I have no idea why. Three actresses simultaneously play the mother of a man on America's Death Row, recounting their white-trash family story whilst cooking his last meal. The dish is meatballs. Let's just say: not enough meat.

Lynda Radley's solo work The Art Of Swimming is more the sort of work one expects in Trav 2. It's both a thoughtful and inventively staged portrait of Mercedes Gleitze, the first British woman to swim the English Channel in 1927, and a reflexive look at making theatre. Radley deconstructs her own show rather after the manner of Tim Crouch (see my review of his piece England earlier this week), with lines like "I am taller than I am" and "Imagine you are an audience", and switches between first-, second- and third-person narratives; we are always aware that this is a presentation, yet still connect emotionally with both performer and subject. Tam Dean Burn's latest piece is an adaptation of Luke Sutherland's novel Venus As A Boy, with live musical accompaniment from Sutherland. Burn acknowledges that he cannot become as beautiful as his protagonist, a semi-angelic drag queen who grows up in Orkney then lives and dies in Soho, but the characteristic intensity of his commitment sees him through a script which is liable to meander.

In the main house, Rona Munro's Long Time Dead, about a trio of mountaineers, boasts a magnificent set by the ever-inventive designer Miriam Buether. In her white-walled capsule of hand- and footholds, director Roxana Silbert manages to combine a theatrical joke with a theatre-name pun when she has her climbers traverse across the fourth wall. The central conceit of the piece is the amount of talking climbers have to do to pass the time when blocked in by weather or to keep one another conscious when injured; I never thought I would be one to complain that a play was too wordy, but this is.

Enda Walsh's latest play The Walworth Farce is about a father in Cork city who, after committing murder, flees his family and immures himself for years on end with offspring whom he tyrannises, until eventually the walls come tumbling down. The trouble is, his 2001 play Bedbound was about exactly the same. The new one has more characters (four) and more proper dialogue (Walsh, like his compatriot Conor McPherson, is a recovering monologue addict). It is given a vibrantly grotesque production by Mikel Murfi for the Irish company Druid, with Tadhg Murphy particularly impressive as the more put-upon son Sean. But if you know Bedbound, no amount of flair can dispel the whiff of retread.

Similarly, though not really damagingly, comedian Simon Munnery's characterisation of Dr Samuel Johnson in Stewart Lee's late-night piece Johnson And Boswell: Late But Live is a periwigged version of Munnery's former incarnation the League Against Tedium. He rails against all things Scottish whilst Miles Jupp as Boswell alternately simpers and sulks at Johnson's refusal to conform to his biographical portrayal. This piece of recondite fluff also features a musical interlude which might, la Deliverance, be entitled "Dueling Bagpipes".

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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