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Forest Fringe review at Out of the Blue Drill Hall, Edinburgh – ‘a decade of experimentation’

Daniel Oliver in Weird Seance. Photo: Guido Mencari Daniel Oliver in Weird Seance. Photo: Guido Mencari

It feels perfectly appropriate that this year’s 10th-anniversary season of curating pioneers Forest Fringe should begin with an absolute dismantling of its form, and the form of art it has been championing for the last decade.

It comes in the guise of a visit from Daniel Oliver’s Weird Seance (★★★★★) project. A future retrospective of an unfolding catastrophe, it involves Oliver recreating an actual forest, and bumbling through a ritual re-enactment of the day “the core of the UK art and live performance scene” was wiped out in a single stroke. Beginning as a bumble and closing in a hilarious, warm, merciless satire of the conventions of live art, it blasts any concerns about sentiment or self-congratulation into jagged fragments.

If the fringe proper is a blur of time slots and colour-coded schedules, an hour with Abigail Conway in her Time Lab (★★★★) is a perfect suspended moment. Invited to smash apart a wristwatch at a table arranged with watchmakers’ tools, we can then upcycle the cogs and gears into our own sculpture or piece of jewellery. At once a gentle weaving of art and craft and a warm bubble-bath of calm.

Greg Wohead’s latest, Celebration, Florida (★★★★), is a gradual play of imitations, recreations and simulacra. Set, both physically and conceptually, on the fringes of a Walt Disney designed Florida town, a hodge-podge of architectural styles thrown together into a madman’s image of the perfect small town America experience. Like White Rabbit Red Rabbit or Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree, it’s performed by two perfect strangers, this time taking commands via headphones, and presenting a moving tone poem on loss and retrieval, on longing, memory and emotional projection. It burns slow and sure, leaving both sadness and hope hanging fog-like in the room.

Nic Green created Cock and Bull (★★★★), together with Rosanna Cade and Laura Bradshaw, for the now-defunct Arches in Glasgow, to be performed on the eve of the 2015 election. Returning to it now, everything has changed. Besuited, their hands and lips painted with gold, they repeat the empty macho gestures of politicians, permuting the mantra ‘hard-working families’ in a thousand blunt and merciless ways. They collapse into an orgy of snorting masturbation, and then, somehow, emerge fragile and beautiful into an empowering song of feminine hope and solidarity. They wish each other good luck, then depart. In May 2015 it was in hope of a victory, now it’s a plea for one another’s survival.

There’s new work here too, as Edinburgh-based artist David Nicol takes us on a mischievous, moving journey through a life with cerebral palsy in Chains on Sink Plugs (★★★★). The grim face of 1970s disability services gradually gives way to a bright future, largely through Nicol’s own determination and the support of his family. Nicol’s honesty is a powerful awareness-raiser, his charisma as a storyteller an equally powerful incentive to listen.

Two notable companies returning to re-enact earlier work are Action Hero and Search Party, companies who, as partners in both the artistic and personal sense, act anyway as refracted mirror images of one another. Action Hero bring Watch Me Fall (★★★★), first scratched at Forest in 2008. Its folk-icon tapestry of junked Americana is as irresistible as ever, as James Stenhouse becomes every Evel Knievel fantasy, and Gemma Paintin every woman’s body crushed beneath his macho heels.

Quieter but still deeply poignant, Search Party’s Jodie Hawkes and Pete Phillips perform the first instalment of Growing Old With You (★★★★★), created in 2011. It’s the gradual ritualising of a relationship, as they drag each other across the ground, as Jodie tends to Pete with TCP and a warm flannel, like physical recreations of lovers’ vows of support and care. Eventually she covers him with oceans of salt, like tears, or maybe it’s just to preserve him, like meat, for the long voyage of their lives together.

The Talk (★★★★★) by Australian artist Mish Grigor upends confessional theatre by presenting the sexual secrets of her family, in a working through and against the silent and taboo nature of sexual revelations in the home. What begins as a frothy hour with the engaging Grigor selecting audience members to stand in for her family suddenly ramps up in intensity with a revelation concerning her brother Will. It becomes an irresistible call to speech and sharing – to talk more and to talk more openly about the most important and intimate details of our lives to those we value most.

A haunting double-bill closes the final weekend, with a return for Paper Cinema’s The Night Flyer (★★★★), an animation-like performance created live in-camera, as a paper boy hunts a paper girl across a night landscape of rolling hills and strange, gigantic figures.

It’s followed by Dan Canham (of Still House fame) performing a piece which was once performed on the final evening of Forest Fringe’s old Bristo Place HQ. 30 Cecil Street (★★★★★) is the phantom of a lost Limerick theatre, filled with voices from the past and played out in a makeshift recreation of a ruined space. Here it’s the ghost of a ghost, and for a moment those two sets of forgotten walls, those two much-missed spaces, float into simultaneous view, like phantom images on an unfocused stereoscope.

There are disappointments too, most palpably Brian Solomon’s The NDN Way (★), which takes a soupy, soporific slant on the Native American sweat lodge ritual. Movement is unclear and obscure, and the connections between the piece’s materiality, with its field of cardboard boxes and upended chairs, and its theme are near impossible to decipher. On the other end of the spectrum, Richard DeDomenici’s Redux Project (★★) showing was all too transparent, with an hour of mainly reused material (appropriate perhaps, but also frustrating) haunted by the inference that even DeDomenici is growing bored with his fun but shallow cinematic re-enactments.

The rarity of a let-down may make Forest Fringe feel a little less risky, a little less ephemeral and transient than it has in previous years. But with a decade of festivals now under its belt, and having quietly but completely altered the face of experimentation at the Edinburgh Fringe, it can surely be afforded this island of security and celebration.

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