What were the highlights of the Edinburgh Fringe 2017?
While there were no ‘skyrocket’ shows at the 70th Edinburgh Festival Fringe, The Stage’s critics revelled in the diversity of voices on display and reveal their favourites…
This was the year of bodies and borders. That might sound flip, but there’s truth in it. The work that spoke most loudly at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe were the pieces that explored what it was to live in one’s own skin, whether these were stories of the trans experience – the National Theatre of Scotland’s Adam and Eve, the ridiculously sweet Jess and Joe Forever, Kate O’Donnell’s You’ve Changed – or wider explorations of identity.
Selina Thompson’s multi-award winning Salt. examined the emotional legacy of the slave trade and the experience of being part of a diaspora. It was a piece full of pain and it invited its audience to carry a piece of that away with them. Rebecca Atkinson-Lord’s The Class Project, also at Summerhall, was an intelligent examination of how a person’s voice defines how others see them. Monica Dolan’s debut play The B*easts unpicked the sexualisation of young bodies in our culture.
Elsewhere, Circa’s new show Humans saw the Australian theatre company at its most poetic, Daniella Isaac’s Hear Me Raw took aim at the wellness industry, and Dublin theatre company Malaprop presented two witty, verbally intricate pieces: Black Catfish Musketeer and Love+. They explored how digital technology is reshaping the ways people interact with one another romantically.
Barrel Organ’s disconcerting, Lynchian Anyone’s Guess How We Got Here showed it developing in intriguing ways, while Emergency Chorus’ Celebration marked it out as a student company to keep a close eye on. Nassim, the new play by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, featuring a different actor at every performance, was a tender and moving exploration of the relationship between a person’s language and their home.
There might not have been any skyrocket shows this year, but the fringe more than proved its worth as a place of debate, with a greater diversity of voices than has previously been the case.
Restrictive notions of gender exploded all over the fringe like the fateful watermelon in Milly Thomas’ Brutal Cessation. Often, women exposed, repelled and satirised the expectations heaped upon their bodies. This Really Is Too Much was a broad satire on these themes, full of promising physical theatre work and raucous appeal. Meanwhile, No Show was an astonishing takedown of male bias within the circus industry and the pressure on female performers to simply smile and do variations on the splits.
While being many other things besides, Wild Bore was a superlative example of gender subversion – the performers’ talking bared arses proved a provocation of a different and wonderful kind, especially when accompanied by Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda.
Whalebone and Tumble Tuck dealt sensitively with the idea of bodies as matter and the psychological discomfort of taking up space. I found Whalebone an indirect but particularly poignant and resonant meditation on the anorexic imperative of self-abnegation. Kate O’Donnell’s You’ve Changed was frank and funny about the financial cost of transitioning, as well as the lasting challenges of prurient and judgemental attitudes about her gender and genitals.
Some of the most brilliant dance works I saw played cleverly with androgyny: SDT’s Velvet Petal: Bedroom took Robert Mapplethorpe and New York subculture as a starting point for sartorial and sexual transformations, while the fantastically strange Process Day cast the company’s dancers as ambiguous beings in a constant state of combination and flux.
Lady Macbeth: Unsex Me Here manipulated the anti-heroine’s soliloquy, which frames nurturing femaleness against the ruthless ‘masculine’ ability to murder, in striking visual form. With male dancers in the role, gender became a dangerous performance several times over. I also loved Un Poyo Rojo‘s gloriously camp and joyous piss-take of tussling locker-room masculinity.
The talent on display at Maison de Moggy, Edinburgh’s cat cafe, was a personal highlight. There were strong female characters and ensemble spirit aplenty. A sense of theatrical magnitude was immanent in the sight of Pauline the Maine Coon, the cafe’s plush-furred grand dame, contemptuously swiping at a glittery fish on a string, while young pretender Coco lurked in a nearby novelty tube. Elodie the Sphinx’s hairless yet graceful presence also spoke (largely silent, sometimes chirrupy) volumes about our superficial conceptions of follicle-based feline beauty.
Summerhall’s 2017 programme was as eclectic and invigorating as we’ve come to expect over the past few years, and nowhere more so than in the Paines Plough Roundabout; it’s not just one of the fringe’s most exciting venues, but one of Britain’s. Alongside returning hits – Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing, the long-lived Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, and a one-off performance of James Rowland’s Team Viking – was a classy line-up of new writing thoroughly rooted in place.
Alan Harris’ Sugar Baby set a chaotic comedy caper on the streets of Cardiff, Nilaja Sun’s Pike Street richly evoked the life of a Puerto Rican community on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Monsay Whitney’s Box Clever told a Kafkaesque south London tale of motherhood and bureaucracy, and Middle Child Theatre’s superb gig-theatre production of Luke Barnes’ All We Ever Wanted Was Everything was an anarchic celebration of Hull, as much as anything else.
Middle Child’s show was one of four from Hull-based companies supported by City of Culture 2017, alongside Silent Uproar’s heart-warming A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad), Bellow Theatre’s contemplative Bare Skin on Briny Waters, and Pub Corner Poets’ utterly shattering Sad Little Man. Proof, if any were needed, of the city’s increasingly buoyant theatrical ecology.
Elsewhere, a spate of formally daring documentary-dramas were as engrossing as they were educational. Javaad Alipoor’s The Believers Are But Brothers delved into the darker side of the internet with a combination of lecture, storytelling and WhatsApp messages sent to audience members. Proto-type Theatre’s A Machine They’re Secretly Building blew the whistle on mass surveillance. Rachel Bagshaw and Chris Thorpe’s The Shape of the Pain used throbbing sound design and bold projections to explore chronic pain. And David Byrne’s New Diorama Theatre show, Secret Life of Humans, managed to squeeze all of human history into one breathtaking hour.
It is possibly an influence of stand-up comedy on the theatre programme at the Edinburgh Fringe, but the autobiographical solo show seems to be in the ascendant. That, or more people than ever are mistaking their personal history for drama.
In this context, those who used their own stories to examine a wider issue were the ones who really made a mark. Jo Clifford’s Eve drew exclusively on her own history to look with an uncompromising eye on the reality of being trans. Her show was far from autobiography, asking its audience to look to themselves for uncomfortable truths.
Over the years I have seen and heard an abundance of white men talking about their histories and problems so it was hugely refreshing to see many more women of colour were at the fringe in 2017. Selina Thompson with her magnificent Salt journeyed from Birmingham to Africa and Jamaica before returning home in a brilliant, personal and sometimes uncomfortable look at the slave triangle. In Half-Breed, Natasha Marshall spoke with passion, humour and an eye for awkward detail about growing up mixed-race in the West Country. And Woke, Apphia Campbell’s piece about the lives of two women 42 years apart, delivered a strong and relevant message about the female African American experience.
In a far more contemplative production, Annie George returned to her grandfather’s birthplace in India for Home is Not the Place, finding parallels between his life and hers. It was a fascinating examination of the meaning and legacy of the British Empire. Another aspect of the lingering effect of that empire was brilliantly interrogated by Jaimini Jethwa in her The Last Queen of Scotland, performed in a strong Dundonian voice by Rehanna MacDonald. Besides examining the Ugandan Asian experience, she succeeded in showing how the ghosts of childhood can hang over into adulthood.
Colonialism also provoked the South African students who made up the company of The Fall. They also drew on their own history, in this case the 2015 campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes. Their skill was to find a story that had both contemporary currency, thanks to events in Charlottesville, and was brilliantly relevant to anyone who has taken part in student politics.
It was evident, very quickly, that gender and identity themes were going to be a major part of this year’s fringe. An early stand-out show was Prom Kween, which finds an entertaining and unique way to hold a mirror up to contradictory attitudes towards gender in the US. Dickless took a distinctly British look at the attitudes of young people towards gender stereotypes, though I couldn’t help thinking it was a response to productions last year such as the inimitable Joan.
Identity and self-acceptance was the serious message behind Matthew Floyd-Jones’s hilarious Richard Carpenter Is Close to You and the theme was also a significant part of Jack Rooke’s Happy Hour, Lemonade, (FEAR) and even The Girl Who Jumped Off the Hollywood Sign. All demonstrably different, each followed a voyage of self-discovery where the outcome was pretty much the same.
The line between musical theatre and music-theatre or gig theatre continued to blur with shows like Prom Kween, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, Old Stock and Third Wheel all adopting the narrator as a device apart from the performers. They were stories where the action takes place to a soundtrack – more akin to a movie than the traditional book/music/lyrics model. The narrator breaks the fourth wall and develops a relationship with the audience, while the actors play out the story,
Another overarching connection to many of the shows I covered was death and the process of grief. The immersive Bright Colours Only had practically sold out before the festival had begun, while more traditional drama The Revlon Girl explored grief in the wake of the Aberfan disaster on a more emotional level. Even the biographical Frank Carson – A Rebel Without a Pause is framed by a conversation between the comedian and his long-dead brother. New musicals also turned to bereavement for inspiration, with Third Wheel, The Inevitable Quiet of the Crash and Buried all playing fast and loose with traditional attitudes to the death.
If anything, maybe there was a sense of disillusion about life at this year’s fringe – a feeling that we have been fed lies in the past and are now left to seek out and understand the truth. On a national level, this is energetically revealed in Education, Education, Education, but on a personal level, we see it in The Soft Subject. It’s rather satisfying to think that at 70 years old, one of the strongest messages to take from the fringe is to start thinking for yourself.