Penelope / The Not So Fatal Death Of Grandpa Fredo / Apples / en route /
Roadkill / David Leddy's Sub Rosa / Beautiful Burnout
Various venues, Edinburgh
August, 2010
*** / *** / *** / *** / *** / **** / ****

Frequent theatregoers sometimes experience a sensation along the lines of, "OK, I know now what this writer/director/performer/etc does, and they do it well, but I don't necessarily need to see them do it again." Regular Edinburgh Fringe experience tends to facilitate this impression of the one-trickiness of certain ponies. Cork-born Enda Walsh, for instance, is a terrific playwright, but for a few years now he has been terrifically rewriting the same play. It involves a small group confined for an age in a particular enclosed space, and now faced with a catalytic arrival which forces them to re-evaluate the past and confront the future.

In the case of Penelope (Traverse Theatre), the group consists of the last four surviving suitors of Ulysses' eponymous wife, who meet every day in a drained swimming pool (this is a contemporary-set riff on the Homeric tale) to take turns pitching her some woo in their respective shades of no-hope; however, each has had a premonition that today Ulysses will finally return and slaughter them all. Cue assorted power games, ponderings and gathering clouds of inevitability. Mikel Murfi's production for the Druid company boasts some heavyweight casting (including Niall Buggy and Karl Shiels) and performances to match, plus a remarkable multiple-quick-change routine from Shiels. In some ways Walsh is a successor to Samuel Beckett in his serial re-examinations of the existential grind of the human condition; Beckett, though, varied his dramatic forms and structures much more.

The Vox Motus company wowed the Traverse a couple of Fringes ago with Slick, which put live actors’ heads on tabletop puppets. The Not So Fatal Death Of Grandpa Fredo this year (Traverse) has a similar cartoonish spirit, with a set consisting of what I can best describe as a Swiss Army shed, bits of which fold out to become everything from a smalltown American diner to a hi-tech cryonics facility to an entire lake. But the story, about parish politics and amateur cryogenics, is not as rib-tickling this time, and even a clutch of musical numbers and some clever live video work fail to compel. Also under the aegis of the Traverse, although performed at St Stephen’s, John Retallack’s adaptation of Richard Milward’s novel for young people Apples is an unflinching tale of underage sex, drugs, ultraviolence and infanticide in Middlesbrough, with the cast of six turning in some fine performances. Some may see it as an indictment of some social bugbear or other; others may view it as a culpable endorsement of such goings-on. But it simply records that such things happen.

In addition to these sites, the Traverse is administering a couple of more peripatetic presentations. en route [sic], by a group of Australian artists named One Step At A Time Like This, arms individuals with iPods containing soundtracks of locally made music (largely electronic) and aperçus about urban life, then guides each of us solo on a route through the city by means of text and phone messages, notes and chalk marks on pavements. It is an anti-touristic walk through back alleys and car parks, intended to give us unexpected and unfamiliar sights of Edinburgh. I fear that I may have combined a lack of observation on the walk itself and an over-familiarity with even such nooks and crannies (years of learning short cuts between Fringe venues); at any rate, I experienced little revelation, and the spoken texts moreover tend towards the general and sophomoric.

Much more powerful is Roadkill, a play about sex trafficking which begins with the audience literally taking a bus journey with young Nigerian Adeola to her new home in the New Town, where it becomes apparent that her “auntie” has brought her here not for education and advancement but for prostitution. We crowd into the bedroom of Mary (as she is now called) and other spaces in the apartment, watching at close and intimate range as she is repeatedly raped, beaten and “trained” in being alluring to the punters. There is no doubt that the location and point-blank dimension add to the potency and indeed make it more difficult to maintain a critical distance; there is a faint air of gimmickry in this respect. But it is no more than faint. Cora Bissett’s production makes deft use of multimedia to portray Mary’s interior state and her travails (more than once we hear collages of “reviews” of her from a sex web site), and Mercy Ojelade is heartbreaking in the central role.

Another instance of the familiar made unfamiliar: elsewhere in the New Town, David Leddy’s Sub Rosa (Hill Street) gives an account of a grotesque Victorian music-hall saga of sexual abuse and murder whilst guiding its audience through the back rooms and byways of a building known to some of us as a Fringe venue, but principally the city’s oldest Masonic lodge. This is a retooled version of a production which Leddy first staged through the bowels of the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow; it seems odd to see and hear so many references to the theatre when we are actually surrounded by the trappings of Masonry, but Leddy gradually works in both Masonic motifs and references to the potential darker side of such a “fraternal organisation”.

As regards site specificity, Frantic Assembly’s boxing drama Beautiful Burnout (Pleasance) frankly gains nothing from being staged in an actual gym hall. I must also confess that for me the Frantics are another instance of one-trick-pony syndrome. However, this look at a bunch of young Glaswegian boxing hopefuls (including a girl) is the finest work I have seen from them for some time. Bryony Lavery’s script is blunt when it needs to be, yet also contains subtleties of patterning and shading, and in the context of its subject matter there is something about the company’s trademark choreographed physicality that tangs on even jaded palates.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2010

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage