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Performing arts review: Edinburgh Fringe 2019

23 August 2019

Peter Graystone makes his selection from the Edinburgh Fringe 2019

caravan/sinan hussein

Sinan Hussein, Sacrificial Love, 2019, one of the paintings in the Caravan-organised exhibition “Abraham: Out of One, Many” by three artists from different backgrounds of the Abrahamic faiths: Hussein (Muslim), Shai Azoulay (Jewish), and Qais Al Sindy (Chaldean Christian). It is in St John’s Episcopal Church, Princes Street, Edinburgh, as part of the Just Festival, until Sunday. www.oncaravan.org

Sinan Hussein, Sacrificial Love, 2019, one of the paintings in the Caravan-organised exhibition “Abraham: Out of One, Many” by three artists from different backgrounds of the Abrahamic faiths: Hussein (Muslim), Shai Azoulay (Jewish), and Qais Al Sindy (Chaldean Christian). It is in St John’s Episcopal Church, Princes Street, Edinburgh, as part of the Just Festival, until Sunday. www.oncaravan.org

HOW would you like your Bible presented during the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe? You can have the Old Testament spouted by a serial killer in Poor Michelle’s Bible John (one of many true-crime dramas in this year’s festival). You can have St Mark’s Gospel recited not just once but twice (both Stefan Smart and Gerald Osborne offered it as a solo show). You can watch stories of Jesus joyfully retold for children (4Front Theatre brought their family musical Fisherman’s Tail). How to choose when there are 3841 shows on offer?

Well, here’s a suggestion. Seek out someone who has been driven by their faith to create something ground-breaking. Start with Nick Dixon who, after eight years on the comedy circuit, has found faith and has developed an hour of entertaining stand-up from the experience. He has called it Christianity and Me. Observing that the comedy world is not noted for its sympathy toward religion (“it’s like opening a steak restaurant at a vegan festival”), he made a superb case for how embracing Jesus is not just subversive but has improved his life. He pummelled his audience of a dozen into laughter: “Jesus only had twelve and look at him now!” He riffed on the gawkiness of Christian dating websites and the differences between denominations: “The C of E is a more chilled-out version — it’s mainly about biscuits.” He’s a very funny man doing a brave (and extremely expensive) thing.

Chancing their arm simply for the joy of laughter, White Collar Comedy is a show by three members of the clergy. The Revd Maggy Whitehouse, the Revd Ravi Holy, and the Revd Kate Bruce, their clerical collars proudly on show, have a gently funny, slightly old-fashioned hour on the Free Fringe. “It’s not the first time I‘ve spoken to a crowd this size on a weekday,” Maggy says. “But usually most of them are depressed and one of them is dead.” Not all their material works. Their sex gags are less shocking and more awkward than they think. (If you didn’t know this already, you will discover that you want to know about your vicar’s sex life even less than you do about your parents’.) But when they are on their home turf of God and bishops, they are splendidly funny.

caravan/shai azoulayShai Azoulay’s A Friend of God, in St John’s, Princes Street

Neighbourhood Watch is an hour of surreal silliness by Harry Carr (who also happens to be the son of a London clergyman). Ken hasn’t turned up to chair the meeting; so we are in the entirely unreliable hands of his deputy. Something sinister is happening in the tuna-packing factory, and the street is under threat from shark-human hybrids, murderous rampages, and poor recycling. Carr is in total control of his audience. The jokes keep on coming. And the show finishes with everyone on their feet singing “Away in a Manger” because . . . oh, if I told you, you’d never believe me.

Another graduate from a Christian foundation (this time the Riding Lights Theatre Company’s summer school) is James Rowland. A Hundred Different Words for Love is a gentle and moving tale lamenting that, if the Inuit have been said to need 50 different words to describe snow, one English word for love is woefully inadequate. Rowland is dishevelled and lumpish; his storytelling is anything but. With closely observed humour, he returns us repeatedly to a moment when he has the opportunity to say, “I love you,” and cannot bring himself to do so. Wrapped inside his story of lost love is another one: the deep friendship of Sarah and Emma, on whose couch he finds a place to recuperate at his most wounded (or inebriated) moments. It is at their wedding that he realises his mistake and sings, accompanying himself on a keyboard, with such tenderness that the spell lasts long after the applause dies down. “There’s no joy like making someone you love happy, is there?”

It has been a good year for gentle charm — two words rarely associated with comedy at the Fringe. In George Egg’s show Moveable Feast, he cooks three meals on stage in increasingly bizarre ways: chicken on a car engine; fish with a flame thrower; caesar salad in a cement mixer. The whole room is full of geniality and great smells — and laughter, of course: “I need to warn you that there is one ingredient that isn’t strictly vegan. Panda meat.”

The Fringe can be a cruel place. Edinburgh is the location where performers can be noticed for the first time and begin successful careers. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, writer of Killing Eve and already halfway to becoming a national treasure, first presented the remarkable Fleabag here in 2013 in a tiny venue — a production only possible because it was crowd-funded. But it is also a place where people exhaust themselves and their life savings attempting to find an audience. A walk across the Royal Mile which takes five minutes in July takes 20 in August because of the hundreds of performers thrusting a flier toward you with a six-word summary of their show.

Hats off to Austin Dean Ashford for the relentless energy with which he engaged an audience of five for (I)sland T(rap): The epic remixology of the Odyssey. He escapes the violence and harassment of urban America and is reborn as Black Ulysses on an island where he encounters Calypso, Cyclops, and other figures loosely drawn from Homer’s epic. The story is told through rap and hip-hop, and Ashford accompanies himself on a ukulele, which he is given by a talking lobster (some of the characters owe more to Disney than to Homer). He reflects on black identity and his Christian upbringing, but the intricate wordplay and multiple characters make it hard to follow. The show has won awards in other countries, and I longed for it to do well, but it got lost between the Scylla and Charybdis of the Edinburgh myth. Like the title, it was defeated by its own tricksiness.

caravan/qais al sindyQais Al Sindy, The Compassionate, in St John’s, Princes Street, Edinburgh

As often at the Fringe, secular companies took on religious subjects with a critical eye. In Our Saviour, by Mermaids Performing Arts Fund, an evangelist (a hypocritical fraud inevitably — yawn!) faces terminal illness. Charlie Flynn has written one compelling dialogue in which the preacher questions whether the hope he has given people warrants the deception. But he hasn’t managed to develop that into a satisfying play – of his six characters, four have almost nothing to do. Smokescreen Productions’ Judas is the 21st-century story of the betrayal of a messianic figure who leads the opposition to a single-faith state. The writer Tim Marriott, working with Toby Harris, gives himself powerful speeches, but his two torturers are entirely one-dimensional, and watching a man being beaten until he forsakes his friend makes for a gruelling hour.

Take a deep breath. Walk across the teeming city to find a really imaginative piece of mission in the quiet of St Vincent’s Church. The church invited all the flower guilds of Edinburgh to reflect on a Christian poem and present it florally. Then they entered it in the Art Festival as Consider the Lilies: Christian themes in the language of flowers. The art was magnificent. One piece that lodged in my visual memory reflected on the proximity of Holy Innocents’ Day to Christmas. Blood red lilies crept, right to left, across a trellis towards white daisies whose petals were dropping to the floor below. It was accompanied by Charles Causley’s poem “Innocents’ Song”. An unlikely success, the building was packed. Many churches in the city take the lucrative step of hiring out their buildings as performance spaces; this one engages with the festival as a participant and the result is an uplifting witness.

Elsewhere in the Art Festival there was a much-lauded retrospective of the work of Bridget Riley. Presented chronologically, it shows her turning her back on figurative representation, toying with the optical illusions of black-and-white abstraction, and then exploding into the use of colour, which made her renowned. Riley’s work defies two dimensions, with waves that refuse to stay still and stripes calculatedly placed to dizzy you. At the National Museum of Scotland, “Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland” examines the Scottish symbols that we think we know so well: bagpipes, tartan, warriors in dramatic landscapes. It traces their development through the 18th and 19th centuries and reveals the part that they played in a branding exercise that romanticised and then sentimentalised Scotland at the very time that cities such as Glasgow became wealthy on the back of the filth of poverty. The exhibition is a revelation, and I will never look at a packet of shortbread in the same way again.

Back to the theatre! The Fringe is a place where formally inventive shows attract an appreciative audience — none more so that the work of the Belgian company Ontroerend Goed — always surprising, always compelling. This year’s piece, Are we not drawn onward to new erA, is fiendishly clever. Not only is the title a palindrome: so is the play. The first 40 minutes show a scene of progressive destruction. Trees are stripped, a statute is torn down and the stage is swamped in plastic bags. All this is accompanied by strange, unintelligible dialogue. At a climactic moment, the action stops and is then reversed in every detail. To explain how this is done would rob a future audience of their surprise, but the theme becomes clear and challenging. Is it too late to put into reverse the course toward environmental devastation on which the human race has set itself? Full of ingenuity and humour, it delivers its warning with a ferocious beauty.

Paul Gee in the CTC New York Ensemble’s musical Henry Box Brown, about the true story of an escaped 1850s slave, which has returned to the Fringe and is at The Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose — Big Yin (Venue 45) until 26 August. Box office: phone 0131 622 6552, or visit or gildedballoon.co.uk

Technologically thrilling though that show is, it as nothing compared with the breakneck originality of Javaad Alipoor’s Rich Kids: A history of shopping malls in Tehran. The audience consumes the play through live action, on 18 screens, on the Instagram feed of their smartphones, and with a discomfiting soundtrack. It is overwhelming. It’s meant to be. It begins with the true story of the car crash that took the lives of two immensely wealthy Iranian twenty-somethings, high on cocaine and adrenaline. It scrolls backwards, like Instagram, through Tehran’s social and political history, until it reaches neolithic ancestry, making the tragedy seem inevitable as the pace of progress accelerates to an unsustainable pace. Then it peers forward, anticipating what archaeologists of the future will make of our generation and its conspicuous waste. The show is a deadly admonition about entitlement, consumerism, and digital technology. I was devastated by it.

Cardboard Citizens, the theatre company that has worked with and for homeless people for 25 years, brought Bystanders. A cast of four present true stories of the humiliation or deaths of homeless people in the UK. They weave a presentation from interviews, court reports and reconstructions. The story that has stuck with me is of the man who, for 80 desperately needed pounds, submitted to having his face tattooed with the name of a bridegroom on a stag weekend. The verve of the actors makes the story engaging, until the appearance of the wounded man on film shocks the audience into silent attention. An urgent and necessary piece of theatre.

Not for the first time, the Fringe’s biggest hit came from its youngest cast. Frankenstein: How to make a monster is presented by six young people from Battersea Arts Centre’s Beatbox Academy. They click, they buzz, they throb, they croon. Under a canopy of flickering lightbulbs, they sing about their lives and bodies. In a production whose structure is loosely based on that of Mary Shelley’s novel, they huddle together as the monster. Each given an individual turn, they beatbox birdsong, underwater echoes, heartbeats, and heartbreak: just six unaccompanied voices and six microphones. The talent on stage is enough to draw down lightning. The evening ended, and all the entire audience were on their feet, whooping with joy. I confess, dear reader, that like some dead thing electrified into life, I essayed a lumbering dance.

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