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Mark Shenton: The pros and cons of the one-hander show

Sophie Melville in Iphigenia in Splott. Photo: Mark Douet Sophie Melville in Iphigenia in Splott. Photo: Mark Douet
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One-person shows are an Edinburgh Fringe default: since shows cost so much to take to Edinburgh, and the main reason a lot of people have for doing them is to get themselves noticed, it’s easier, cheaper and less distracting to fly solo. But I usually avoid them there – too often it means being stuck in a room with the stage equivalent of a pub bore, with no means of escape (unless you leave, which feels particularly heartless given that they’re all on their own, as you may be, too).

But I recently saw four one-person shows that test and expand the form, while another (with added dancers and a live onstage band) frustrated and left me longing for escape. So I’m glad I’ve not written them off entirely.

Two of them were a double bill by the same actor/writer, a New Yorker called Ben Rimalower. They were a kind of onstage therapy, as he told stories from his own life. In the first, Patti Issues, he spoke extremely wittily of his own personal fandom for Broadway diva Patti LuPone, juxtaposed with a story of his father turning out to be gay (as he is, too). In the second, Bad With Money, he gave a frank account of his own battles with spending and living beyond his means, and the frequently disastrous ways he has tried to beat the deficit, from selling himself as a male prostitute when he was a student at Berkeley, to dipping into the expense account of the film studio executive for whom he was working.

This was sometimes deeply uncomfortable to listen to, but there’s also something remarkably healing in the personal honesty he brings to telling this story of chronic dishonesty. We may be more careful with our own money, but we can still relate — or at least I can — to the stories of addictive cycles and becoming trapped in ways of behaving. There are ways to break the pattern, and owning it — as Rimalower does here — is one. A selfless act comes out of a selfish one, too, as his story can bring hope to others who are either afflicted or have been affected.

Even more astonishing is the story that actor Mark Lockyer relates in Living With the Lights On, another confessional. This time it’s from the frontline of his own mental breakdown, in the middle of a production of Romeo and Juliet for the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon, in which he was playing Mercutio. It led to suicide attempts, arrest and a spell in prison after he set fire to the flat of a former partner. He is irrevocably changed by the experience — marked like a tattoo, he tells us — but he’s here to show us that he’s come out on the other side. It’s a brave, extraordinary man who exposes and expresses himself so openly, and puts the demons of manic depression on such public display.

From these all-too-true stories to a fictionalised one that nevertheless has a raw, haunting power: Iphigenia in Splott, by Gary Owen, tells a quietly stunning story of a marginalised woman who finds a kind of redemption in a one-night stand with a disabled man who she immediately idealises a future with, only to discover he’s unavailable. It’s a short but bruising play, fired up by the piercing intensity of Sophie Melville’s performance as Effie. This production, originated at Cardiff’s Sherman Cymru and recently seen at the National’s Temporary Theatre, is currently touring the UK; I missed it in London, so travelled to the Door Theatre at Birmingham Rep to see it instead, and it was worth the effort. Note to self: don’t dismiss one-person plays so quickly. They can be every bit as powerful as a sprawling O’Neill drama.

On the other hand, one-person shows can also be the worst kind of personal indulgence. If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me at the Young Vic feels like a show that the 50-something Jane Horrocks has had on her fantasy wish-list since she was a teenager; a chance to wear the look and provocation of a rock chic as she replays the songs of her youth by the Smiths, Joy Division, New Order, the Human League, the Buzzcocks, Soft Cell and more. She performs them with attitude but no context and harshly strident vocals; the result is earnest, pretentious and pointless – nothing more than a personal jukebox musical accompanied by modern dance.

We go to the theatre to hear stories — real or fictional — being told, not to indulge in personal vanity projects. Fortunately, all but one of the one-person shows I’ve seen recently were complex, multi-faceted explorations of what it means to be alive, but the last one reminded me that sometimes there’s a kind of theatrical death, too, in such a tedious navel-gazing revisit of the soundtrack of one’s youth.

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