EDINBURGH FRINGE 3: Soldiers/Hymn To Love/
Philip Jeays: Still Playing The Fool
Various venues, Edinburgh
August, 1998

Jeremy Weller's Grassmarket Project presentations, in which non-actors recount and recreate their own experiences, seldom make easy or (in the strict sense) enjoyable viewing, but are more often than not intensely compelling, presenting us with unmediated humanity in its various aspects. His latest project, Soldiers at the Traverse Theatre (venue 15), employs one professional and one self-described "wannabe" actor in a cast of six; the others on the stage comprise a war correspondent, an ex-Scots Guard and two members (one Canadian) of the Bosnian Federation Army.

There is little acting-out of events; mostly Jane Kokan interviews others about their experiences under fire in the former Yugoslavia and in Northern Ireland, or the participants deliver monologues directly to us. When action does arise, as when Kokan is terrorised by a post-traumatically stressed soldier (one of the actors), its directness is shocking. Scarcely more so, however, than ramrod-backed Frank Gillian's matter-of-fact accounts of losing control in South Armagh's "bandit country"; or Nick (no surname is given) haltingly recounting the 15-month torment of his brother as a prisoner in the Balkan conflict. Weller's projects are occasionally earnest but unengaging; Soldiers leaves us writhing in silent shame at our accustomed apathy to horrors such as these people have experienced.

When I first saw Hymn To Love (Homage To Piaf) in London in May, I remarked that I had never been particularly taken with Edith Piaf. Three months on, with no other interim exposure to the chanteuse, I find myself a convert, thanks entirely to Elizabeth Mansfield's performance in the show she has devised with Steve Trafford and Annie Castledine (now also playing at the Traverse).

Mansfield does not set out to impersonate Piaf slavishly the programme calls her character "The Singer" and she only once refers to herself as "Edith" but she uncannily captures the manner and style of the legendary figure. A dozen songs, set amid rehearsal for and performance at a New York concert on the day Piaf's lover, boxer Marcel Cerdan, died in an air crash on his way to her, are linked by autobiographical monologues a little contrived, but tightly and beautifully executed both in writing and delivery. Trafford's English lyrics are similarly taut and sensitive (the only chanson delivered in French is the inevitable encore, "Je ne regrette rien"). Mansfield's characterisation is all the more impressive when one remembers that she last received such plaudits for a similar recreation of music-hall queen Marie Lloyd by the same creative team.

For all that Mansfield has awakened me to the glories of Piaf, I still incline more towards the cynical romanticism of Jacques Brel. Philip Jeays, performing at the Café Royal (venue 47), neither impersonates Brel nor performs a tribute to him; he simply wants to be the man's musical heir. To all intents and purposes, he succeeds. Still Playing The Fool is an hour of Jeays' own songs, delivered with a sometimes frightening intensity and an often gleeful amount of bile. The heights and depths of love and loss (more often the latter), the black frustrations of failure, the defiant settling of old scores, the dark impulse to stab one's best friend in order to seize his car, house and wife (in the self-parodically Brel-titled "Geoff")... Jeays covers the whole waterfront quite delightfully, looking more than a little like the David Bowie of 30 years ago and fixing his gaze above our heads in a transport of emotion. One of the less widely known gems on the Fringe.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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