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On the Exhale review at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh – ‘intricate study of grief’

Polly Frame in On the Exhale at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh. Photo: Iona Firouzabadi
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‘Active shooter’ is a term with which most people don’t have to be familiar. But American playwright Martin Zimmerman’s monologue, responding to the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, pulls apart all the horrors of that phrase.

Told, slightly jarringly in the second person, through the eyes of the mother of a school shooting victim, in minute detail On the Exhale looks at the build-up to, and aftermath of, the unthinkable, yet sadly all-too-common act.

Polly Frame treads delicately over Frankie Bradshaw’s beautifully austere set design, the stage strewn with the kind of fluorescent strip lights you get in classrooms. This makes the space look like a school has collapsed and Frame is walking in its debris.

Frame’s still and centred performance, under Edinburgh Fringe stalwart Christopher Haydon’s careful direction, brings out the intensity and moments of poetry in Zimmerman’s script, which contains some devastating lines.

But the story is double-edged. The second half looks at the frightening power of a gun, and takes a strange direction when Frame’s character herself becomes obsessed with an assault rifle she buys.

While both strands of the story make their point, they don’t marry well in this one character. In maintaining its intricate, psychological study of grief while also moving into slightly absurd territory, the impact of the play is ultimately flattened.

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Intense monologue about a US school shooting loses its bite