Basic Mountain, Venue 106, Hill Street, Edinburgh
Oh, but Phantom Owl are good. Really, they’re very good indeed: the kind of good that makes you want to raid the superlative cupboard and shower them with accolades.
After the glorious Fault Lines, our expectations are running high. This makes us nervous: what if we’re disappointed by the second of their shows? We’re not. If anything, Filthy Talk for Troubled Times is the stronger of the two; it’s a more intense, demanding piece, allowing this ambitious company the space to show what they can do.
We’re in a strip club, as close and complicit as the punters themselves, forced to bear witness to an unflinching exploration of the cruelty and misery gender-roles create. The joyless, transactional nature of human relationships is laid bare by the setting, where the veneer of glamour (exemplified by the topless dancer writhing sensuously on a pole as we enter) is soon worn away, exposing the ugly truth that lies beneath.
These are seriously top-notch actors, exhibiting a level of professionalism it’s rare to see at the fringe. Matthew Lillard’s direction is flawless too: the choreography looks effortless but is perfectly orchestrated; the atmosphere is tawdry and menacing – Neil LaBute’s script expertly brought to life. And what a script it is. Through a series of monologues, we are made privy to the inner thoughts of six disparate characters, and made to confront the unpalatable truths their bravado usually conceals.
Make no mistake, this is not an easy play to watch. There are instances of distinct discomfort, not least when Man 3 (a wonderfully brash Steve Connell) sits right next to us and tells us, laughing, of the time his friend raped two gay men in a park. He makes eye contact, inviting us to sanction the act, which – in a way – we do, smiling awkwardly back at him, rendered somehow powerless by the forces of social convention. It’s too tricky to dissent. This moment stays with me all evening, long after we have left the venue. Really, why did I smile?
Each character is fully realised, both by the script and the performances. These are real people, with all the faults and foibles real people have. The naturalistic acting style is beautifully undercut by the more stylised touches (the way the other characters move or speak in unison whenever Waitress 2 (Zibby Allen) speaks; the way Man 1 (Dean Chekvala) uses the others as models to illustrate his tales). This is ensemble work at its best: a real group endeavour with a lot to say about the way we live. It makes me care for the characters – and question my own world. And surely that’s what theatre is all about?
Phantom Owl is an exciting company, and I’m delighted we chanced upon them. If you see just one thing at the fringe this year, make sure it’s one of theirs.