Edinburgh 2018

Michael Wilson: My Adventures in Mental Health

15/08/18

Three Broomsticks, South Bridge, Edinburgh

We’ve been looking forward to this event. We’ve been familiar with Michael Wilson’s keenly-observed lyrical poetry for a long time now: we’ve heard drafts of earlier pieces in workshops, and have seen him perform several times in Manchester. No doubt about it, he has real talent, and we’re keen to see what he’s been working on in recent years.

As the title suggests, My Adventures in Mental Health is a personal chronicle of mental illness. In his brief introduction, Michael is keen to point out that his own experiences are just that – his own; he’s not claiming any kind of universal insight. And yet, this deeply personal collection of poems is genuinely revelatory: there is an appealing Everyman quality to it, despite uncommon individual circumstances. I think it’s in the humanity, the vulnerability, that shines through every line.

The narrative is thematic rather than chronological, leading us through a cycle of depression, mania, hyper mania, hospitalisation, drugs – and finally to wellness, to hope, to love. It’s strangely uplifting – the structure allowing us the relief of a happy ending, the ability to smile at the man sitting in front of us, who has just laid bare the horrors of a severe illness. This is the sort of writing that should make it easier for others to talk, to open up. Michael makes it look easy. His poems make it beautiful.

Take these lines, for example:

His hand on my shoulder holds little in it…

But I thought if I could describe this pain

it would transfer –

like the ones we had as kids.

Apply water.

Apply pressure.

Lift and reveal.

But temporary.

Colour smudge bright.

His hand on my shoulder

leaves a tattoo on my skin.

I love the wistful nature of this section, the brightness of the child’s memory suffusing the present pain. Michael’s poetry is all like this: pain made palatable through gentle imagery, savagery tempered through the beauty of sound.

The venue isn’t ideal for his performance – the open window and the busy road combined with Michael’s melodic Northern Irish accent and soft voice mean that it’s hard to hear at times – but it’s worth leaning in and concentrating hard. This is a lovely piece of work.

5 stars

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield

 

 

 

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Big Aftermath of a Small Disclosure

14/08/18

Summerhall, Edinburgh

What I love most about the Fringe is the sheer variety of what’s on offer. Two weeks into a rigorous viewing timetable, patterns start to emerge (for example, table lamps and portable cassette recorders are popular props this year); I start to think maybe I’ve seen it all. And then I find myself in Summerhall, watching ATC’s Big Aftermath of a Small Disclosure and am reassured that theatre still offers endless possibilities, that I can still be surprised.

We start with a bare stage and two characters, Jon (Abhin Galeya) and Louise (Wendy Kweh). They cross, meet in the middle, and Jon tells Louise he is thinking of leaving town. Their dialogue comes in short, staccato bursts, spare and unrevealing. It’s an intriguing opening, the bare bones of an idea. When Johan (Sam Callis) and Sjon (Mark Weinman) join them, the stylised he-said-she-said repetition is both funny and strangely alienating – but slowly, slyly, the power dynamics are revealed, and we see the characters pacing, circling, approaching and retreating, vying for control and understanding of the crisis created by Jon’s simple announcement.

This is choreography as much as direction: the moves become more complex as the drama is fleshed out, and it’s beautifully crafted by Alice Malin. Layer by layer, we learn about the group: who they are, what they mean to each other, what Jon’s leaving really signifies. The set grows with each round of revelations too: now we have grass, now chairs, now beer bottles and other props. The whole piece is an illumination of the storytelling process, how we start knowing nothing and are fed details piecemeal.

Magne van den Berg’s script, translated by Purni Morell, is oddly ethereal; the characters’ speech patterns are slightly jarring – it has a disorienting effect. I like it: it’s the opposite of naturalism; nobody speaks like this, with such precision and control. And yet, even in its strangeness, it’s all very recognisable: the unuttered agendas, the circling around real issues.

A thought-provoking, unusual piece – and one I highly recommend.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Island Town

13/08/18

Paines Plough at Roundabout, Summerhall, Edinburgh

We’re big fans of Roundabout here at B & B. Paines Plough’s portable, in-the-round theatre is a wonderful space and we’ve  seen some fantastic performances here. Island Town is an especially exciting prospect for us, being a co-production between Paines Plough and Theatr Clwyd; as North Walians, we’re keen to see what this collaboration brings.

Writer Simon Longman clearly knows about small towns, about the stifling going-nowhere feelings that make people feel trapped. The location here is unspecified, ‘this town surrounded by fields’, circled by a ring road, is impossible to escape. It’s anywhere and everywhere, as symbolised by the actors’ regional accents: one Derby (I think), one Manchester and one Welsh.

This is Kate’s story, and Katherine Pearce is captivating in the role of the angry teen, full of impotent fury, raging at the injustice that sees her marooned, caring for her dying father, permanently drunk because it’s the only outlet she has. She yearns for something better, longs to head off beyond her narrow horizon, to see more of the world. But she’s tethered: too poor, too tied down, too ill-equipped to leave.

Her friends, Sam (Charlotte O’Leary) and Pete (Jack Wilkinson), are more accepting of their lot. Sam’s main concern is protecting her little sister from their violent dad, while Pete’s only ambition is to be a dad himself. Pete in particular is a tragic case: he’s a sweet character, positive and hopeful; he doesn’t ask for much. But the system seems designed to grind him down. He hasn’t any qualifications and there are no jobs locally. He can’t even get the benefits he’s entitled to, because the bus service has been cancelled so he can’t get to the job centre to sign on.

There’s no doubt about it, this is a bleak play, but there is humour too, a nicely balanced tug of war between hope and despair. And, as we draw towards the teens’ inevitable fate, we start to make sense of the strange jerking movements they’ve been making in the transitions between scenes…

Perhaps the penultimate section is a tad too long, a little too spelled-out, but all in all this is an impressive piece, a darkly accurate commentary on those society leaves behind.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Not in our Neighbourhood

12/08/18

Gilded Balloon, Rose Theatre, Edinburgh

Not In Our Neighbourhood arrives in Edinburgh as part of the ‘New Zealand at the Fringe’ package. This powerful and compelling production, written and directed by Jamie McCaskill, tackles the difficult subject of domestic abuse and features an astonishing central performance from Kali Kopae. We’ve already seen some superb acting at the Fringe this year, but this might just be the most impressive yet.

Kopae plays young filmmaker, Maisey Mata, who is shooting a documentary at a Women’s Refuge. We first see her setting up a tripod to film her introduction – but, we can’t help noticing, there’s no camera on that tripod. In essence, the audience becomes the camera, watching as Kopae depicts several of the women that Mata meets at the Refuge. There’s motor-mouthed Sasha, the young mother of several children who just can’t help getting herself into hot water. There’s 51-year-old Cat, so worn down by years of systematic abuse by family members that she can hardly construct a sentence. There’s Moira, the bubbly and ever pragmatic woman who runs the refuge. And there’s Teresa, an outwardly successful businesswoman, who appears to have everything she needs, but has endured a violent marriage for twenty years and kept her grievances under wraps… until now.

Kopae switches effortlessly from character to character, inhabiting each role so expertly that we’re never in any doubt as to who is talking at any given moment. The term ‘tour de force’ is often used, but is rarely as deserved as it is here.

With acting this accomplished it would be all too easy to overlook the writing, but that too deserves our praise. The script nimbly avoids cliche and presents a completely credible exploration of its chosen subject. It may not be the kind of thing that draws big festival crowds but make no mistake, this is a fabulous piece of theatre that  deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. Get yourselves down to the Rose Theatre with all haste, before this wonderful show heads back to NZ. It’ll be your loss.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

 

Stardust

 

11/08/18

Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh

Stardust is all about cocaine – its history, its usage, its properties. It’s about the way a tribal drug, used for thousands of years in religious ceremonies has been taken up by the Western world, exploited and commodified; how people are enslaved by it, murdered because of it and how casual users across the Western world, no matter how they might protest, now have blood on their hands. Make no mistake, this is a hard-hitting piece.

Our MC for this show is Miguel Hernando Torres Umba, a charismatic artist/performer making his debut at the Fringe. He uses many different techniques to get his story across. There are dreamy back projections, and ethereal music. For one section he adopts the persona of a game show host and gets the entire audience to interact with him. In another, he spoofs the famous scene from Scarface where Pacino takes all those bullets. Oh, and did I mention that he’s also an incredible dancer? One section where he depicts, through dance, the way that cocaine acts on the senses is a real highlight for me. He dances like he’s just inadvertently stepped on a 60,000 volt cable… leaping and scrambling around the stage until the inevitable comedown hits him and everything goes eerily into slow motion.

There are plenty of laughs scattered throughout this exciting multi-media show, but it clearly has a very serious message. Umba now lives in London, but was born in Colombia and is understandably sick of the way his nation is habitually depicted, how everybody in the West assumes that his countrymen are all drug dealers. He demonstrates very effectively how the people that grow coca are themselves victims of the organised crime that has grown up around the harvesting of the plant. There are the harrowing testimonies of people too scared not to grow it, people who have seen their relatives tortured and murdered in order to make them obey.

This is a powerful polemic delivered as a slice of entertainment, sharp enough and affecting enough to change hearts and minds. Go and see this and, whatever your views on cocaine, prepare to be enlightened.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Gulliver Returns

11/08/18

Underbelly (Big Belly), Cowgate, Edinburgh

Gulliver Returns, written and directed by Dan Coleman, is an interesting piece of work. We first meet Lil (Cathy Conneff), whose introduction warns us that her husband, Adam (Jack Bence), has recently started demanding that she call him Lemuel Gulliver, and that he identifies completely with the protagonist of Swift’s most famous book.

What follows is a clever interweaving of Gulliver’s Travels and Adam’s apparent breakdown, the novel serving as an allegory for Adam’s struggle to cope with bereavement, with loss. Lil humours him, supports him, helps him to tell his tall tales – because she loves him and she wants him to be well. As Gulliver, he moves ever further away from her; by joining in his stories, she tries to draw him back.

It’s serious stuff, with a lot to say about mental health as well as an analysis of a fine piece of literature. But it’s funny too – often laugh out loud – as Lil mediates Lemuel’s pomposity, punctures his self-aggrandisement and sets him right on a few things.

Both actors are first-rate, actually; we are drawn into the horror of their disintegrating marriage, fearing for them even as we laugh at their antics. And there’s some innovative use of puppetry, the Houyhnhnm in particular a curious spectacle. The set – three bookcases and a stool – is remarkably effective, conveying oceans as well as living rooms, simultaneously vast and stifling.

The only thing that lets this down is the venue: there’s water dripping on the bare concrete stairs that lead up to Big Belly, and it stinks in there of damp and mould. But still, it’s worth steeling yourself and putting up with the fetid air for this quirky, fascinating play.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Aye, Elvis

10/08/18

Gilded Balloon, Rose Theatre, Edinburgh

Joyce Falconer stars as Joanie in Morna Young’s engaging play. Joanie’s world is dreary and dull: she bickers daily with her housebound mum, and dreams of something more exciting than her supermarket checkout job. Singing karaoke at the local pub leads to an obsession with Elvis, and she sets herself up as a tribute act, drawn into the cameraderie of online chat groups dedicated to the King. Encouraged by Fat Bob, the pub landlord, she sets out on an ambitious project that is sure to change her life.

Aye, Elvis is a big hit with tonight’s (largely Scottish) audience, who are vocally appreciative throughout, joining in with the big numbers, clapping and laughing and generally enjoying what they see. It’s not hard to see why: this is entertaining, feelgood stuff: silly and poignant and hilarious throughout. Falconer clearly has a strong fan-base here; she has a twinkle in her eye, and seems to be relishing her time on this small stage. Karen Ramsey makes the most of some deliciously acerbic lines as Joanie’s crabby mum, and David McGowan’s Fat Bob is a charming, calming presence.

Dazzlingly costumed and played for laughs, this is a lot of fun, and definitely worth making a trip to see. It even gets a standing ovation from the crowd – the first we’ve seen at this year’s Fringe.

4 stars

Susan Singfield