EDINBURGH FRINGE 2: The Hanging Tree/The Designated Mourner/
Victor Hugo's Les Misérables/thetownthatwentmad/Zero/27
Various venues, Edinburgh
August, 1997

Nicola McCartney has plainly been watching a lot of late-period John Ford and probably a fair few Peckinpah movies as well. Her latest production for her LookOut Theatre Company, The Hanging Tree (which has just opened at the Traverse as part of their second wave of Edinburgh Fringe shows), adeptly captures the mythic but sombre mood of such Westerns and translates it to a housing scheme in the west of Scotland. An embattled sense of community tries grimly to survive in the face of a disintegration of law and order, as anti-hero John turns vigilante against drug dealers rather than cattle rustlers. Ex-cop John is in the classic mould of sheriffs gone wrong: an adulterous recovering alcoholic, he is consumed by his personal quest at the expense of his family.

McCartney assembles her narrative piece by piece, in a play which is structurally and mechanically much stronger than LookOut's slightly disappointing last production Entertaining Angels. The crucial scenes pull off the impressive hat-trick of at once resonating with classic Western atmosphere, amusingly undercutting it and generating a hefty dramatic power on their own terms.

A bizarre experience at the Scottish premiere of The Designated Mourner, also at the Traverse: looking forward to a production of Wallace Shawn's piece which did not rely in performance, as Mike Nichols allegedly had done at the Cottesloe, on a computer autocue for the lengthy monologues, I was astounded to see protagonist Jack literally reading his lines from a script on the desk. Only afterwards did I discover that, due to illness, the role had been taken by director Daniel Brooks. In truth, though, it makes little difference: the piece remains a wordy, above-the-neck-only experience, more a short story for three voices than a dramatic work. Canada's Tarragon Theatre offer a production including Clare Coulter (so praised last year in Shawn's solo piece The Fever) and a fine, discreet sound design by Richard Feren (who provided the backbone of Brooks's 1996 production Here Lies Henry), but the script simply does not deserve such precise, sensitive attention. As a meditation on selfhood, morality and revolution, it comes off a poor second to the Howard Barker piece at the Assembly Rooms.

At the Fringe Club, Red Shift continue their revivivifcation begun with last year's Bartleby. Victor Hugo's Les Misérables is a world away from big musicals, as a cast of six concentrate on just telling the story. It is a "poor theatre" production, in ethos if not in resources, relying on skills of characterisation and often ellipsing entire episodes into a couple of lines of dialogue and a meaningful look. Once again, live music is used to telling effect, and even the taped songs of The Pogues which play pre-show and during the interval seem somehow to add to the underworld Parisian atmosphere.

Physical theatre once again shows a heartening if not quite revelatory presence on the Fringe. Volcano's thetownthatwentmad (Pleasance), a semi-sequel to Under Milk Wood, pulls back from the quagmire of cautious earnestness which bedevilled their last show The Message, re-establishing a playfulness with text and presentation, although kicking against fewer pricks of theatrical convention than the company's best work. Their cousins Frantic Assembly, in Zero (also Pleasance) conclude their "Generation Trilogy" with thoughfulness and appeal but little seismic impact. More encouraging is fecund theatre's 27 at Theatre Workshop: having settled upon their distinctive style a few years ago live action, pieces to microphone and video footage intermingled and overlapping John Keates and his colleagues are at last applying themselves to material which can support such an approach, chronicling an entire life from conception rather than noodling around in indulgent narrative backwaters.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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