Natasha Tripney: Paines Plough’s Roundabout is the Edinburgh ‘bubble’ in microcosm

Paines Plough's Roundabout
Paines Plough's Roundabout
Natasha Tripney
Natasha is The Stage's reviews editor and joint lead critic.
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The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a place of collision. It’s inevitable – with so many performers crammed into a relatively small city, people bump into each other, physically, creatively, and every year there are a series of one-offs and events capitalising on this proximity, the kind of thing that, logistically, it would be much harder to arrange outside the Edinburgh bubble. Some of these are arranged on the hoof, day by day, others mapped into the schedule beforehand.

Some of my favourite fringe moments have been those singular events that seem to only happen up here: poets Tim Clare and Ross Sutherland perform their ode to 8-bit video gaming in a rammed room in the Banshee Labyrinth, sweat practically dripping from the ceiling; Chris Goode getting a whole room to sing We Shall Overcome down at the Forest Fringe.

The most talked about Roundabout show has been the Royal Court's Manwatching

This year Paines Plough has been getting maximum use out of its portable Roundabout space, currently squatting like some great egg in a courtyard at Summerhall, by programming a series of bonus shows called Earlier/Later, a place for play and experiment - inspired by the ‘renegade spirit’ of Mark Ravenhill’s influential Later salon - which are taking place throughout the festival at 10am and 10.30pm (confession: I’ve not yet made it to anything in the 10am slot). The most talked about of these has probably been the Royal Court’s Manwatching, a work-in-progress about female sexual desire written by an anonymous female playwright and performed cold during each performance by a different male performer who has never seen the script before.

On the night I saw it, it was the turn of James Acaster. The play is essentially a first-person account of the writer’s sex life from the point of her adolescent awakening through into adulthood, via various boyfriends and lovers, the script detailing her thoughts on masturbation and all the things she fantasies about. One could argue there’s gimmickry here – and probably be right – but there is also something fascinating about watching how the reader engages with the material. It turns out Acaster can’t say ‘libidinal’ and his expression as he scanned through the script was occasionally very telling. In this way the piece also addresses the way women’s desires – and voices – are framed by society, who gets to say what and where.

#Torycore being performed at the Roundabout in Edinburgh
#Torycore being performed at the Roundabout in Edinburgh

On August 16, the Roundabout played host to an Edinburgh edition of Lucy Ellinson and Chris Thorpe’s #Torycore, which while only officially announced the previous afternoon managed to fill the space to capacity. Their doom metal interpretation of George Osborne’s budget speech is a cathartic bellow of a show, a scream of feedback and frustration. The nature of the Roundabout space, its gorgeous Star Trek quality, had the effect of forcing the sound down on people’s heads; it was a bit like being smothered. Watching Ellinson howl surrounded by a very young crowd – including members of Barrel Organ and Walrus Theatre – it was clear that this roaring encapsulated something very real and raw for them – there were people sobbing and the eruption of applause at the end became something of a force in itself.

A further shift in tone for Monday’s Later, which saw poet Luke Wright – who’s currently absolutely killing it with his show What I Learned About Johnny Bevan - host a poetry battle in which he and a selection of poets read a series of tenuously linked work, creating a poetic chain of sorts. Elvis McGonagall, Rob Auton, and John Osborne, also performed but the highlight for me was Jemima Foxtrot, with her fertile, verdant tiptoe verse – I’m already making plans to go see her full-length show, Melody.

There’ll be further Earlier/Later performances throughout the Fringe including performances by Josie Long and a one-off chance to catch cult show I Heart Catherine Pistachio, and the whole series is testament to the serendipitous nature of the Fringe, its ability to be nimble.

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