MY BIGGEST laugh of the 2017 Fringe Festival came a week before I’d even arrived in Edinburgh. Having requested a ticket for the comedy double act Jonny and the Baptists, their PR noticed that I was writing for the Church Times. She emailed to check that I realised their show had no content at all that related to Nonconformists.
Indeed I did! The Greenbelt Festival favourites brought songs from their five-year career, full of fury against injustice but, more importantly, hilarity. They succeeded in stopping the show with the first line of their first song: “Only the Queen can kill Donald Trump.” They made an accidental wobble during the conferring of a knighthood seem as sensible a development as any politician has yet offered. Their comedy is self-deprecating and their friendship is uplifting. Without relaxing the comic onslaught for a moment, they also convey the sadness that comes when you discover that your parents, who brought you up to seek decency and virtue, have voted for a racist party.
PRs work heroically during the month-long festival. The PR of All The King’s Men, runners-up in the BBC music competition Pitch Battle, informed me that the nine-piece group were all former choirboys. He was persuasive that of all the a cappella boy bands in the festival (and there are many), Church Times readers would be interested in them because of the way church services had influenced their act. They sang 1990s pop standards with reverb turned up to cathedral levels. It was musically outstanding, impeccably choreographed, and, writing six days later, I have forgotten everything about it. That will be the influence of church services on their act.
Several companies played with the idea of God. In God Ltd, three bickering angels are left in charge of heaven on God’s day off. Instead of answering prayers, which they haven’t done for centuries, they randomly choose people who call out God’s name (most often blasphemously, of course) to appear in heaven. Cue jokes at the expense of Westboro Baptist Church and sexual abandon. The young actors of the Glasgow company STAG have infectious fun, but it’s a ten-minute sketch stretched to an hour with goofery.
Songs and fury: Jonny & the BaptistsOn the other side of town, something far more interesting was taking place. The comedian Phil Nichol was winning five-star reviews for his show Your Wrong. He recounts an online argument with a flat-earther, who closes the discussion with a triumphant, “Your wrong.” The irony leads Nichol to recall being brought up by fundamentalist Christian parents. His dwindling teenage faith collapsed when the brother he idolised crashed his car and went into a coma. The story intensifies around a hospital bed where an urgently praying Christian community and the angry teenage Nichol are at odds over whether the life-support machine should be turned off. It would be difficult to write more without spoilers, because the true story takes fascinating and unexpected turns.
Nichol’s style is shouty and aggressive. You will have to believe me that the story is packed with uncomfortable laughs as well as a serious challenge to the audience to re-examine their certainties. But, if you suspect that this is a typical stand-up ranting against Christian faith, your wrong.
Richard Marsh’s Todd & God is not as intriguing, but it is entertaining. Elvis Todd, partner of a resolute atheist and son-in-law to “one of those sweary vicars”, has a miraculous visitation that overturns his world. God is not only real, but has chosen him to start a new religion with which she will put right her previous mistakes. Told in twisty, rhyming bursts of verse, the style is matched to its preposterous theme.
Given the size of the subject that Marsh has taken on, the play is slightly shallow. But, alongside Sara Hirsch as God, he makes an hour flash by. Despite compassionate intentions, Todd doesn’t make as good a shot at Religion 2.0 as he hoped. The comedy turns darker, and there is a twist that leaves you doubting whether atheism is ever going to be as satisfying a faith as its adherents claim.
The Traverse Theatre programmed a season of several plays by or about transgender people. In Eve, the seasoned performer Jo Clifford tells her life story by addressing photographs of herself as a young boy. She has fathered children, and now has grandchildren who address her as Grandma. It is impossible not to warm to her, but there is something self-indulgent about the writing which makes 70 minutes of it wearing. In Adam, a debut performer, Adam Kashmiri, has won awards for the story of his flight from Egypt to Glasgow, yearning to live as a transgender man. In Arabic it isn’t possible to say, “I love you,” without referencing the person’s gender. How difficult this must be when you wonder whether your mother will ever declare her love for you again.
Thomas DahnensBankers and gamblers: participatory theatre from Ontroerend Goed’s £¥€$Both pieces allude to Genesis. Clifford refuses to accept the shame Eve felt about her body. Kashmiri (in Frances Poet’s script) tells us that the Arabic word salim can mean both one who has been bitten by a snake and one who has found safety. The Traverse clearly hopes that its programme will be regarded as trailblazing; but, after the General Synod’s motion to welcome and affirm transgendered people, and consider liturgies to mark their transition, it feels as if it has come a year late. The Church got there before the theatre, which is a phrase that probably hasn’t been used since the Mystery plays of the 13th century.
It is rarer to hear a tale about growing up gay and Muslim. It turns out to be very like growing up gay and Christian, but with added racism. In Submission, Sameer (Shiv Rhaberu) is trying to hold together a life of piety by day and excess by night. Shafeeq Shahjahan’s script tells the story in twisty, rhyming bursts of verse (there’s a lot of it about this year). On this occasion, though, it is flowery and over-intense. It is performed with great conviction, but the suggestion that Sameer’s insecurity might lead him to radicalisation overburdens the drama.
Returning to the Fringe, laden with awards, is Worklight Theatre’s Labels, and what a fine piece of work it is! Joe Sellman-Leava is half British and half Indian. His hugely engaging monologue is about his refusal to be categorised by any of the names by which he and his family have been called since they arrived in England in 1972, expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin. The account of casual racism is told in the simplest way, with a suitcase, some paper aeroplanes, and dozens of sticky labels. I laughed often, I was shocked by the quotations that draw a line of hatred directly from Enoch Powell to Donald Trump, and I was in tears all the way through his curtain call.
courtesy joe haydonKeeping on dancing: The Letter Room, No Miracles HereMental health is another theme that has become increasingly significant over recent years. No Miracles Here is a high-energy piece by The Letter Room, in which depression and dance echo the Great Depression and dance marathons of the 1930s. A tight six-piece band tells the story of Ray, “who keeps his charisma in a jar under the bed”, and whose only chance of winning at life is to keep dancing in the desperate hope that his knees will never touch the ground. Instruments are passed from hand to hand to belt out Northern Soul numbers. The multi-talented cast dance as if their lives depended on it. There are no easy solutions, and certainly no miracles. Although the metaphor is pushed to its limit, this is an extremely likeable piece, which renews your determination not just to stand alongside those who are living with depression, but to dance at their pace.
In Theatre Re’s The Nature of Forgetting, Tom is succumbing to dementia in his middle age. He clings on to threads of memory which delight but then confuse him — his schooldays, his friendships, and romance. Part mimed and part acted, with live music, it is immensely accomplished. With great precision, props glide in and actors glide by. Under Guillaume Pigé’s direction, not a single moment is less than engaging. There have, however, been many physical-theatre pieces recently in which dementia has played a prominent part. I found myself wondering when a theatrical trend becomes a theatrical cliché. I was reconciled to the fact that this would be a performance that impressed rather than moved me until the very last second, when a single word smacked into my heart and undid me.
Enough of this sadness: take me to the circus! Barely Methodical Troupe has developed a reputation for jaw-drop acrobatics, accompanied by big laughs and enough thoughtfulness to make you want to discuss the narrative at the bar later. In the magnificent Kin, five brothers audition for a woman who refuses to be impressed by the most astonishing feats. Rivalry intensifies as the men outdo each other with shoulder-to-shoulder somersaults, and on the cyr wheel. The woman makes her choice, but what brings the audience roaring to its feet is the final, touching demonstration that, no matter what may happen, the boys are still kin.
A name that, I hope, we will hear often is Elliot Warren. His prizewinning play Flesh and Bone tells East End stories with Shakespearean gravitas (and quotations slithering among the slang that you congratulate yourself for spotting). Five residents of a London tower block each have soft secrets beneath their hard exteriors. Shoulder to shoulder, they cope with rats, brawls, pregnancy, and a stand-off with the bulldozers. These stories are rarely told, and these lives are rarely honoured. Unpolished Theatre has done them proud in this funny, pacey, compassionate gem.
Starting a new religion: Richard Marsh in Todd & GodSophisticated technology allows The Believers Are But Brothers to tell its true stories in three ways: through on-screen video, in live narration, and on the audience’s personal smartphones, where the performer Javaad Alipoor and audience members are linked by the messaging service Whatsapp and can communicate with each other throughout the show. Very scary Alipoor’s three stories are, too: about young men who were radicalised in various ways by their engagement with the internet.
His piece contains some superb writing. That’s easy to overlook as the menacing messages of extremists make their way into the palm of your own hand. The world of ISIS recruiters and alt-right websites comes frighteningly close. The subtle final minutes, however, which can be achieved only by the members of an incarnate audience responding to one another, suggest that we have in our humanity an alternative future, if we are prepared to choose it.
For sheer originality, the Belgian company Ontroerend Goed provided many people’s favourite experience. £¥€$ (or LIES, as they preferred to call it at the box office) is a participatory show in which the audience, seated in groups of seven, form banks and are given money to start investing, their fortunes dependent on the roll of a dice. Bonds are sold, mergers are formed, and the credit status of the banks climbs and falls. As the stakes rise, we are no longer investing real money but notional promises that cannot possibly all be honoured.
The pace of the music intensifies. The year 2008 is approaching, and it becomes evident that one of the banks is going to collapse. My heart was genuinely pounding at the climax, as bankers rushed from table to table trying to sell me bonds that might prove worthless. As an education, a warning, and an immersive piece of theatre, it is peerless.
Despite taking out an emergency loan that I will never be made to repay, I went home with an IOU for £16 million. Do I feel guilty? Not in the slightest. That’s the entire alarming point. Edinburgh Fringe Festival, you 3400-show monster, this year I won!
Almost all these shows will announce further performances and details will emerge over the coming months at: jonnyandthebaptists.co.uk; allthekings.men; studenttheatreatglasgow.com; philnichol.com; richmarsh.com; nationaltheatrescotland.com; liverandlung.com; worklighttheatre.co.uk; theletterroomtheatre.co.uk; retheatre.com; barelymethodicaltroupe.com; facebook.com/FleshandBoneLDN; javaadalipoor.co.uk; ontroerendgoed.be.