Everything not reviewed

Our brains are essentially faulty. This is what I learnt from Malaprop Theatre’s mind-melting show Everything Not Saved. Or am I misremembering that?

Memory is a strange thing. In the blur of the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s even less reliable than usual. Shows slide by, each rapidly followed by the next. Recollected later, they bleed into one another. Certain images or moments stand out, while the rest recedes into an indistinct haze. Writing about shows in retrospect, the mind fills in blanks, padding out the places where memory fails.

On my week-long trip to this year’s Fringe, I had the luxury of only reviewing a comparatively small number of shows (you can read the reviews here). But with the rest of my time I saw many more, enjoying the novelty of being a punter. I want to record those shows and my responses to them, but already their once sharp edges are softening and my certainty about them is wavering.

So here’s what I remember – or what I think I remember. This is not a review. It’s a patchwork of faded images and unreliable observations. A retrospective impression of one journey through a festival with countless paths. A story that my brain has conjured to explain my experiences to myself.

I remember a doctor gently saying “I know. I know. I know”. John Sassall, the country doctor who is the subject of John Berger and Jean Mohr’s A Fortunate Man, understands the meaning of care. And that, above all, is what Michael Pinchbeck’s exploration of the book seems to be about: care. Sassall offered care in the way only a GP at the heart of a small community can. In today’s NHS, which glints briefly through the gaps between Berger and Mohr’s pages, care has been all but erased by numbers and targets. Doctors still care about their work and their patients, but their ability to truly extend care has been restricted.

In Pinchbeck’s take on the book, a lecture dissolves into something else, something messier. Images remain, their negatives glowing like X-rays in my memory. A figure on the floor, surrounded by scattered autumn leaves. Scrolls of turf unfurling across the stage. Papers flying in the air and settling like snow. In the moment of watching, these images strike me, but rarely move me. A Fortunate Man is a cerebral piece – clinical, almost – and I watch it from a position of intellectual detachment. Or, at least, that’s how it’s fixed in my memory.

I remember a screen cradled as affectionately as a lover. I remember remembering, slowly retrieving the details of Phil Porter’s Blink as Squabbling House’s new production unfolds. It’s an odd, bittersweet little play, exploring connection and disconnection in our age of screens, but in a far from obvious way. There’s more softness and sentiment in Squabbling House’s reading than in my memory of Joe Murphy’s offbeat, exquisitely awkward premiere production. I miss that oddball quality, but it’s interesting to see the tenderness that can also be found in the play’s strange relationship between two introverted outsiders.

I remember a woman saying, defiantly, “God is dead”. Defiantly because, in the unspecified future of Penelope Skinner’s Meek, blasphemy is a serious crime. It’s a Handmaid’s Tale-esque world, in which a violent “Reformation” has ushered in a regime of religious control and repressive patriarchy. A woman is arrested for writing a song and held up as an example. We see her in the stark grey surroundings of a series of prison cells, in short, measured, economical scenes. It’s meticulously constructed, but the ideas feel familiar and well-worn. More interesting than the hyper-religious dystopia is the psychological interrogation of martyrdom, picking at the complex web of reasons – both selfish and selfless – that might lead someone to sacrifice themselves for a perceived greater good.

I remember words projected on a wall telling me I will not remember. Words that trick me, slyly proving how easy it is to manufacture false memories. Everything Not Saved is, in some ways, like a microcosm of the Fringe experience: a series of different scenes, characters and stories that seem to melt into one another, dazzling the mind and testing the memory. Three disparate narratives and a set of contemplative interludes are linked by their interest in how and what we remember. The focus moves from the small and personal – how do we record and recall our own relationships? – to the global and historical – how can our fallible memories be trusted to document and retell the events of our shared history?

It’s a piece that acts on both the mind and the senses – if, indeed, we can even think of those two things separately. Cerebral conversations give way to pulse-quickening theatricality. And Malaprop Theatre know that the strange and arresting images – a masked and bejewelled nightmare monarch, a collapsing chorus of bearded Rasputins – will stay with us more than the carefully crafted words. “This is the bit you will remember”, the words on the wall tell us, and they’re right. How much more are we forgetting or erasing?

I remember a man staggering under the weight of his nationality and wrestling with the privilege it grants him. For Chris Thorpe, his white Britishness is like a superpower; the ugly history of colonialism, power and language is a “get out of jail free” card. Status, Thorpe’s new collaboration with Rachel Chavkin, interrogates that superpower and what it might mean to reject it. Though, of course, choosing to renounce one’s nationality is a privilege that has largely been bestowed by that very nationality in the first place. It’s complicated.

There’s lots about Status that has sloshed together in my memory of it. There’s an unexpected thread of magical realism running through the show, which combined with seeing it towards the end of a six-show day has dispersed it into a dreamlike mist. Flashes of narrative blink from the murk – a sky-high bar in Singapore, a talking coyote in the American desert, police brutality in a pub in Serbia. The show charts a global journey that is invested in the notion of being a citizen of the world, but along the way Thorpe and Chavkin reveal just how complex and deep-rooted nationality can be.

I remember a house – a house I’ve never been to – put together from scraps of memory and piles of hoarded keepsakes. If Daniel Kitson’s embryonic new comedy show is about anything at the point I see it, it’s about how we build homes out of remnants and symbols. Kitson talks us through the house where he lives alone, from the dozens of empty jam-jars he can’t get rid of to the wall he pastes with photos. He meanders, in typical Kitson style, spiralling off into other anecdotes and observations, but it always comes back home. And I know that, while watching, Kitson’s jokes and stories made me think about all sorts of things, but as I sit now at my desk, surrounded by cards and pictures and books, all I can fix on firmly is that set of ideas about what makes a home and what our homes say about us.

I remember the ghosts of writers and of stories. Spectres, fascinating and funny and ugly, of the great men whose prose we worship. Providence is an uneasy celebration of H. P. Lovecraft and his writing, both romanticising and problematizing the bigoted recluse whose imagination birthed the Cthulhu. It both lampoons and lovingly recreates horror tropes, veering from the hilarious to the genuinely creepy. What’s scariest, though, is the racist rhetoric that seeds itself in Lovecraft’s mind, poisoning brilliant ideas with toxic hatred. Can we, in the end, separate the man from his work? Providence gives us both, leaving it up to us to decide.

I remember a sharp intake of breath. Several sharp intakes of breath. Underground Railroad Game elicits perhaps the most audible audience reaction of anything I see at the Fringe. At times, as Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard’s brilliant show dances intricately around issues of race, language and representation, it feels like a performed reaction – a conscientious rehearsal of wokeness. But as the show goes on, hurling more and more curveballs at its audience, those gasps are underlined with tangible shock and unease.

I don’t gasp, because I already know what to expect. I’d seen a recording of the show in advance, as research for a preview feature. But you can’t feel the squirming discomfort of an audience through a screen. Underground Railroad Game is a tricksy, slippery play, undermining and unravelling its own performance idioms almost as soon as it establishes them. The show makes it clear that we need to be able to talk about race, but it also stresses that how we talk about it – the words we use, the stories we tell – is just as important. And Kidwell and Sheppard refuse to give us the closure or guidance that we as an audience crave. This is on you now, they seem to be saying.

I remember a teenage girl hearing Patti Smith’s Horses for the first time. I remember myself hearing Patti Smith’s Horses for the first time. The difference is that, unlike Cora Bissett, I didn’t immediately go out and join a band. What Girls Are Made Of is the story of that band, and Bissett’s big break, and the crash that follows when a big break doesn’t work out. Recalling events that happened a quarter of a century ago, Bissett has the wide-eyed excitement of the teenager she once was as she’s thrust into the world of indie-rock stardom with her band Darlingheart. It makes an endearing if cautionary tale, soundtracked by the distinctive pulse of 90s Britpop. And even if I never joined a band, it hurtles me back to the breathless joy of first discovering those songs that seem to grip you by the heart, and to the thrill and uncertainty of that precipice between adolescence and adulthood.

I remember friends moving together and apart, propelled by the breath of their own fallible statements. In Big Aftermath of a Small Disclosure, a sentence snowballs into a crisis, as Chinese whispers rip relationships to shreds. There’s a hypnotic quality to Jennifer Jackson’s choreography; the four performers bump and collide like atoms in a chaotic universe. But even though I suspect this is the point, I find the petty repetition of their words deadening. Playwright Magne van den Berg undoubtedly has a point to make about language and discourse, but as soon as I step out of the performance it’s already a blur, quickly lost in the fog of the festival.

I remember a story that may or may not be true. James Rowland is a crafty storyteller. He might tell us that everything we’re about to see and hear is artifice, but the twinkle in his eye and the earnest charm of his performance slyly hint otherwise. It’s never quite clear to what extent Revelations is “true”, but it doesn’t really matter. We invest in the best stories as if they’re true, and that’s where stories gain their real power. Rowland’s tale of friendship and creation and faith has me leaning in from its first beat, and by the end I care as much about his characters as I would do if they were my own best mates. In the grip of such gently compelling storytelling, “truth” feels sort of irrelevant.

I remember an old, ill man, sleeping in his car next to an oxygen tank, headlights trained on the front door of the house where his wife lives. She has dementia and can get aggressive, but her family can’t find a care home they can afford. So her husband sits in the car, trying to protect both her and himself.

This is one of many snapshots of health and social care in Mark Thomas’s Check Up: Our NHS @ 70. It’s the one that sticks with me. Because the NHS, as Thomas explains, is not an island. It’s surrounded by poverty, by inequality, by the failure of social care. Thomas makes it clear that if we want to save the NHS and make health outcomes more equitable, we have to address those things. Speaking to me about the show, Thomas suggested that it’s much more theatre than it is comedy, and watching it I agree. There’s very little to laugh about here.

I remember a woman wrung out by grief. A woman squeezing the trigger of a gun to feel closer to her murdered son. On the Exhale takes a startling approach to the aftermath of gun violence. The play’s unnamed speaker reacts to her son’s death in a school shooting not by shunning weapons but by developing a strange, all-consuming fascination with the gun that was used to commit the atrocity. Martín Zimmerman explores the illogicality of loss in measured, almost poetic lines, delivered with pinpoint precision by Polly Frame. But the insistent, absorbing rhythms of the script are swallowed up by a far-fetched turn of events, smothering the subtleties of the play up to that point. I leave disappointed and deflated, as the tension that the show has so carefully set up quickly dissipates into the drizzly Edinburgh air.

I remember history glitching. Or, rather, imagined history. Because the archives that are reanimated in War with the Newts are the records of a projected future, manipulated to encourage different conclusions. At first glance, this is dystopian sci-fi, a fantastical world in which intelligent newts are being bred and exploited as a new workforce. But like so many dystopias, War with the Newts is really about the present and the past. The allegory is a little blunt, and aspects of the story feel contorted and contrived to make Knaïve Theatre’s point, as does the immersive set-up. It’s thrillingly ambitious, though, and highlights the horrors of history and current events with a lucidity that can sometimes only be achieved through fiction.

I remember balloons. White and pink, bobbing above the artificial grass that carpets the grand hall of The Hub. Balloons have been over-used in contemporary theatre, but in Midsummer I forgive them. This new, expanded version of David Greig and Gordon McIntyre’s musical is a mixture of grit and froth, at times resisting the saccharine sentimentality of the musical genre and at others falling helplessly into its embrace. It’s a knowing remix of the rom-com, following an unlikely couple through a wild, booze and rain drenched midsummer weekend in Edinburgh. The pristine table settings of a wedding come tearing down, as the four performers rip through the idea of conventional romance before patching it back up again. It’s not quite the giddy, ecstatic theatrical experience I expect it to be (expectations are as dangerous as faulty memories), but it’s charming and joyful and impossible not to like.

I remember a woman in an alien mask, swaying to Bowie’s “Life on Mars”. This image alone makes me fall for Lights Over Tesco Car Park. Poltergeist Theatre’s show has lots of the hallmarks of young companies – speaking into microphones, experimenting with projections, inserting (not always necessary) snippets of audience interaction – but there’s also a cleverness and a playfulness that quickly make me go with it. Lights Over Tesco Car Park is an exploration of UFO sightings that wears its quirkiness on its star-patterned sleeve. It goes deeper, though, than a simple shrug of “isn’t this weird?”, asking questions about how we judge our own experiences, what really counts as “true”, and why some of us might want to believe that we’re not alone in the universe.

I remember two teenagers, lonely and uncertain, staring out to sea. Tallulah Brown’s Songlines, backed with music from Brown’s band TRILLS, is the last show I see at the Fringe. It’s a classic festival cocktail of unlikely romance, coming-of-age drama and kooky theatrical frills. It manages to capture the awkwardness and raw vulnerability of adolescence, which is felt as much by “bad girl” Stevie as by her nerdy love interest Stan, though it feels like a familiar and unremarkable formula. Songlines is small and sweet and fragile, like the delicate, folky melodies of TRILLS’ music. But I wonder, as the lights go down, “will I really remember any of this?”.

Image: Malaprop Theatre’s Everything Not Saved

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Barber Shop Chronicles, West Yorkshire Playhouse

 

Language matters.

Just a few days before I see Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles, Tory MP Anne Marie Morris casually uses the N-word in a meeting about Brexit. That anyone can “casually use” the N-word at all, let alone in public, astonishes me. Or it should astonish me – the implicit, deep-rooted racism of much of British politics has in some ways ceased to be shocking. But there’s something so sickeningly, complacently entitled about the comfort and the ignorance that allows someone to use the N-word at a public event as if it’s just part of an everyday phrase. Her apology, claiming that the use of the word was “totally unintentional” (how do you use the N-word unintentionally?!), is even worse.

During one scene in Barber Shop Chronicles, there’s an intense discussion about the N-word. Does it reclaim a term associated with abuse and oppression, ask the characters, or does it just make white people feel that it’s OK for them to use it again? (I think of Varaidzo’s essay in The Good Immigrant, in which she writes about the awkwardness of being the only black kid at a party when a rap song comes on: “I’m a big red stop sign in the middle of the dance floor, a symbolic reminder of why they shouldn’t use such a word and who they will offend”.)

Language is a thread that runs right through the play, which uses the social space of the barber’s to connect African men from around the globe. Elsewhere, a Nigerian man frets that the nation’s Pidgin language is being diluted thanks to its integration with English. Others argue in return that all languages must evolve. Words can be freighted with historical meaning and trauma, yet words are also slippery and changeable, a tension that Ellams skilfully holds in suspension.

The barber shop of the title is also a talking shop. Spread out across Lagos, Johannesburg, Harare, Accra, Kampala and London, these are hubs for the African male diaspora, criss-crossed with connections between nations and cities. One character here has an uncle or a brother or a son over there (relationships between fathers and sons are another connecting thread). As one man puts it, the barber shop is like a pub for these scattered communities, somewhere to kick back and open up.

It would be easy for these different places and scenes to feel fragmented, but Bijan Sheibani’s production is remarkably fluid. Shifts of location are achieved with a swish of the barbers’ capes as the cast dance between scenes, backed by some inspired music choices. Rae Smith’s design helps tie it all together, too, with a wire globe circling overhead and different barber shop signs that light up to show us where we are. The scope is at once epic and intimate.

Representation matters.

When I interviewed poet and playwright Zodwa Nyoni a couple of months ago, she made it clear that seeing herself and people she knew represented on stage was absolutely crucial in her decision to start writing. There’s plenty of talk about diversity in the arts, but thinking about who and what is represented on stage is a vital first step – and one that can’t be underestimated. As Nyoni said of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, where I watch Barber Shop Chronicles, “seeing yourself here matters”.

In thinking about representation, I keep coming back to this blog by Vinay Patel. Writing about his desire to mainstream marginal narratives, Patel stresses that what he wants is “not parts that could be played by anyone”. He doesn’t want tokenism and he doesn’t want people of colour in everyman/woman roles that could equally be filled by white actors. Instead, he describes the ultimate aim of what he calls “Stage Four diversity”:

“Ethnics exist as a main character (in a mainstream work). The character is a lead and their ethnic/cultural background inflects the story and their world. But it’s not an overwhelming part of the show. They are great. They are flawed. They are you. They are read as everyone in the way that white characters traditionally are.”

The characters in Barber Shop Chronicles are not parts that could be played by anyone. These individuals are deeply rooted in specific geographical, ethnic and cultural contexts, while not being purely contained or defined by those contexts. They are great. They are flawed. They are us and they are not us. They are allowed to be everymen in one moment and particular in the next. They are each unique facets of a black, African masculinity that is far from the homogenous mass that mainstream representations often paint it as.

The cast of 12 is large for a stage like this, but it feels even larger. Each actor transforms utterly from role to role, adopting new accents and gestures – little tics or habits that clearly distinguish each individual without ever straying into the territory of caricature. Such precision. While the huge collection of characters can sometimes be hard to keep track of, what they and the rich idiosyncrasies of the acting provide is a complex, multi-layered portrayal of black men, which is itself a political act.

Right at the end, an actor comes into the London barber’s for a trim. He wants to look the part of “strong black man”. I’m reminded of Desiree Burch’s blistering one-woman show Tar Baby and her anecdote about the demands of casting directors: be more sassy, be more urban. What they really meant was “be more black”. If there’s anything Ellams, Sheibani and their cast are attempting to shatter, it’s that reductive idea of the “strong black man”, that stereotyped blackness that stages and screens routinely perpetuate.

Stories matter.

As that actor at the end of Barber Shop Chronicles is painfully aware of – and as the actors in Sheibani’s production have no doubt encountered – stories of black masculinity have been damagingly narrow. The black men in Ellams’ play, by contrast, embrace a wide range of backgrounds, attitudes, professions and political views. That shouldn’t be something that needs commenting on (when do I observe that white characters on stage occupy a variety of different positions?), but the fact that it is something that invites comment says a lot about why we need shows like this.

Barber Shop Chronicles isn’t perfect. (After all, what is?) There are moments when the implicit is made unnecessarily explicit, and characters who appear and disappear all too quickly, leaving me wanting more. But it is an important, necessary and most of all thrilling piece of theatre. (And fun. I don’t think I’ve said enough about how fun it is.)

And it matters.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/bijansheibani/playlist/3NtrKtomvmA14J6uLJUSim

Persuasion, Royal Exchange

 

There’s a way of doing Jane Austen. Bonnets. Dresses. Men in uniform. Meaningful looks and wistful sighs. Dancing and afternoon tea.

This is not that kind of Jane Austen. Jeff James’s new production opens with heroine Anne Elliot splayed face-down on the stage under a harsh neon glow. It’s an immediate refusal of the poised female elegance associated with countless stage and screen adaptations. We start not with a ball or a country mansion, but with an image of raw regret and dejection.

That makes this version sound grim and gritty. It’s not. Though James clears room for the remorse and uncertainty that ripples through Austen’s novel, his adaptation (written with James Yeatman) is also an absolute blast. It excavates the satire of Austen’s work from the many layers of frothy period drama that have congealed around it while mashing it up with a series of gleeful anachronisms, from Frank Ocean to foam parties.

The early nineteenth-century manners and conventions gently mocked by Austen find present-day equivalents. The ball is traded for the nightclub and the seaside visit for the booze-fuelled beach holiday. The preoccupation with marriage, meanwhile, doesn’t sound as dated as you might expect. Though matrimony is no longer an imperative for young women, in the mainstream imagination happiness is still bound up in romantic relationships. Instead of the marriage market of Bath or London, we have Tinder and Match.com.

Not that these parallels are pressed. James’s production never explicitly relocates Austen’s tale to the twenty-first century; the talk of marriage and inheritance and the Napoleonic Wars keeps the narrative firmly in its historical context even as, in other ways, this version wrenches it out of time. It’s the sort of treatment that barely raises an eyebrow in contemporary productions of classic plays, but that until now has failed to make its way into adaptations of classic novels.

For this particular book, which confronts many of the tropes of Austen’s earlier work, the irreverent approach works a treat. The marriage that is elsewhere expected (in Pride and Prejudice, most famously, from the very first line) is interrogated in Austen’s final novel. At 27 – the start of the “years of danger” for an unmarried woman – Anne is contemplating what life without love and marriage might look like. Meanwhile Captain Wentworth, the man she loved and was persuaded to give up eight years ago, cynically gets on with what’s expected of him after making his fortune: finding a pretty young wife.

Crucially, this Anne Elliot is ready to tell her own story. As she wryly points out, men have long had the advantage – “the pen has been in their hands”. Now, though, she’s seizing a grip on her narrative. At first, that’s through sheer refusal: whenever her family attempt to interfere, she sharply spins them round and pushes them off the stage, ejecting them from the pages of her story. When this stops working, though, Anne is forced into becoming the protagonist and taking action. Where once she was persuaded, she now stands firm.

In this central role, Lara Rossi is as far from a simpering period drama heroine as James’s production is from bonnets and bows. She owns both her regret and her independence, asserting her right to hold on to past love and reject present proposals. Quiet but fierce, Rossi stares down those who oppose or belittle her. There’s a similar hardness in the eyes of Samuel Edward-Cook’s Captain Wentworth, even when frolicking with new fling Louisa Musgrove. When the former lovers lock gazes, the top layer of Alex Lowde’s stylish white catwalk set shifts position; the earth moves.

This is also possibly the funniest Austen adaptation you’re likely to see. It’s both a reminder of Austen’s wit – too often overlooked or underplayed in other versions – and a tongue-in-cheek take on the very act of adapting. James and his team crash the novel into the contemporary context of its staging in ways that are frequently hilarious. The laughs come both from incongruity and from the occasional, uncomfortable resonances. These characters are figures of mockery, but they’re not always as different from us as we’d like to believe.

The only misstep is a brief kiss between two of the female characters, which comes across more as cheap titillation than as a genuine attempt at queering the otherwise heteronormative narrative. It feels tokenistic – an obligatory but fleeting nod to the fact that not all relationships look like the ones portrayed on stage here. The production is at its best when it does not attempt to update Austen’s tale but instead plays on the gap between the novel and the world in which we now encounter it. Everything on a stage is always itself and something else, a duality that James acknowledges and revels in.

The night before seeing Persuasion, I was at the New Vic Theatre for their version of Arnold Bennett’s novel Anna of the Five Towns. It’s hard to imagine two more different adaptations to see on consecutive evenings. Where Anna of the Five Towns strived to be faithful, the adaptors of Persuasion understand just how inadequate the vocabulary of faithfulness is. When we read or watch Austen in the twenty-first century, we are always at a remove from it, reframing it within our own experiences and social conventions. It’s that messy meeting of past and present – rather than a prettified version of a disappeared time – that this Persuasion puts on stage.

Photo: Johan Persson.

Alternative Facts

 

The truth, it seems, has never been more manipulable. In both national and global politics, facts have been demoted to interchangeable tokens. Numbers depend on who’s counting. We’re surrounded by fake news and alternative facts. 50 shades of truth and untruth.

Breach are here to tell us a true story. You can read about it on Wikipedia. It’s an inspiring story of pioneering scientists reaching for the stars. No. It’s a tragic story of unlikely romance. No. It’s a shameful story of exploitation and colonisation. No. It’s an embarrassing story of good intentions gone awry. No. It’s a story of institutionalised misogyny and sexist sensationalism. No.

It’s a story about a woman and a dolphin. The woman, Margaret Howe, is a college dropout who loves aquatic life. Or she’s a pioneering researcher who’s passionate about her work. Or she’s a woman in a man’s world who gets taken advantage of and thrown in (quite literally) at the deep end. The dolphin, Peter, is a research subject at the heart of a ground-breaking experiment. Or he’s an aggressive creature who needs to be taught and tamed. Or he’s just an animal, trapped and confused.

It all depends on your point of view.

Breach vigorously underline these diverging perceptions. Tank is, at face value, a show about an embarrassing footnote in the Space Race. Howe’s experiments with Peter were part of a NASA-funded research project led by John C. Lilly. The aim? Interspecies communication. If researchers could teach English to dolphins, then they might just be able to teach it to any extraterrestrial life NASA stumbled across. Or so the logic went. But Lilly and Howe failed. After five years of experiments, the project was shut down in 1967. Now it’s best remembered for the sensationalised fact that, during a 10-week period in which she and Peter co-habited, Howe masturbated a dolphin.

Beneath this quirky factual narrative, though, Tank bristles with ideas. Most of these come out in the telling. Tank is sort-of-verbatim: as Breach’s quartet of performers tell us at the opening of the show, only a fraction of the now fragile tapes containing recordings of Lilly and Howe’s experiments have been made publicly available. Everything aside from the limited selection of transcripts, then, is a matter of filling in the gaps.

Breach flood these holes in the story with competing and contradictory accounts. While Joe Boylan (strange, beguiling, remarkably dolphin-like) and Sophie Steer (quivering with the effort of staying in control of the experiment) step in and out of the roles of Peter and Margaret respectively, Ellice Stevens and Craig Hamilton commentate from the sidelines, pitching in with different interpretations of the events. Margaret arrives at the research station in a red convertible, silk scarf blowing in the wind. Or she drives a Volkswagen beetle and strides up the drive with the professional confidence of a pioneer. And so on. And so on.

As the performers bicker over the details (was this a love story or an experiment gone wrong?), there’s more than a hint of Forced Entertainment’s truncated narratives and interrupted falsehoods. This, though, is Forced Ents for a post-truth world. Breach might never settle on a single interpretation of the events they present us with, but there’s a powerful sense of what’s at stake in the choice between different ‘truths’. The danger of othering – so alarmingly apparent all around us in this new Brexit and Trump dominated reality – comes across particularly vividly, as does the destructive human impulse to control and colonise.

There are multiple layers of abuse here, from the impossible situation in which Margaret is placed, to the cruelty that she and her colleagues inflict on Peter, to the domineering imposition of the English language on both the human and the animal world. And Breach are painfully aware of all this. They might clothe these complexities in fashionable irony, but theirs is far from an empty postmodernist interest in the multiple nature of truth. We can’t be sure that we’re telling the story truthfully, they seem to be saying, but still the truth matters.

Sh!t Theatre are also here to tell us a true story. Their story. Or rather, their story and the story of Windsor House, the former council estate block where they rent a cramped, letter-strewn flat. Theirs is a vision of London’s housing crisis through the very personal prism of their own experiences. It’s their truth, but it’s the truth for countless others too.

Letters to Windsor House follows the same goofy documentary style as most of Sh!t Theatre’s previous work, using songs and silliness to delve into a serious issue. It all starts with the letters for previous occupants that keep dropping onto the doormat of Sh!t Theatre’s Becca and Louise. Discovering a handy loophole, they decide that it’s not strictly illegal to open the mail of these strangers, and one by one they track them down. There are, of course, fake names to protect privacy, and an insistence on the truth of what’s being told combined with deliberate notes of doubt.

What emerges from the scraps of information they piece together about Windsor House’s former residents is an indictment of the sorry state of London’s housing. These strangers all seem to be afflicted by debt and other financial woes, or they themselves have managed to exploit the wonky economics of the capital’s housing market. Soon it turns out that even Becca and Louise’s landlord has been making a dodgy buck by illegally subletting his council flat. But when they try to delve further, the facts become tangled and it’s hard to know who to believe. There are conflicting motives, too. Do they care more about the truth, or about making sure they don’t get turfed out of their ramshackle home?

Sometimes, in Sh!t Theatre’s detective mission to find the recipients of the titular letters, the scale tips a bit too far from serious to silly. The most compelling sections, though, are when Becca and Louise investigate the new luxury housing development that’s going up on their doorstep. In one bitterly hilarious sequence, they screen secretly filmed footage of the two of them being shown around one of the outrageously expensive apartments by an estate agent who promises that the local riff-raff will be kept at a safe distance. At other points in the show, they play the soundtrack from the development’s ad – rhapsodising about a green haven in the heart of the city – over footage of the area’s drab and grimy reality. One truth superimposed over another.

I’m manipulating the narrative a bit here too. These are just two shows that I happened to see within a couple of weeks of one another; just two shows of the hundreds that premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe last summer. But they seem, at least to me, to capture a certain mood. In both, there’s an urgent yet uncertain interest in the truth. Breach and Sh!t Theatre each want to get to the bottom of something – they have a sense that separating the truth from the lies is increasingly important – yet they also realise it’s not as simple as that. There are questions of power here, of who gets to control the narrative. In the hands of a misogynistic media, Margaret and Peter’s story can only ever be one of sensationalised smut or bizarre attraction. With the advertising budget of a property developer, a deprived patch of London can be transformed into a leafy paradise for millionaire investors.

These shows also seem indicative of an interesting new direction in documentary theatre. My problem with verbatim shows, whether dry stagings of official documents or Alecky Blythe-style reconstructions of interviewees’ speech patterns, has always been that they seem to be trying too hard to tell the truth; their insistence on veracity tends to make me prickle with suspicion. In their narrating of real events and experiences, meanwhile, there’s rarely acknowledgement in these shows of the elision and editing involved.

By contrast, theatre-makers like Breach and Sh!t Theatre enter into a slippery and subjective relationship with the real-life subjects they interrogate. They are less interested in a televisual documentary style that aims for an illusion of unmediated contact with the truth and more interested in the playfulness and fakery of theatre. But unlike some of the earlier companies whose influences are traceable in their work, their irony is tainted with unease. Because they know that there’s more than one way of telling a story, and they also know that the consequences of alternative facts are far from fictional.

It’s complicated, sure. But how we tell stories matters. Facts matter. Now, perhaps, more than ever.

LOVE, Birmingham Rep

 

The corner of a strip of wallpaper is curling off the wall. Hard plastic chairs cluster around tables. Dirty, chipped tiles line the ceiling and damp blooms in corners. A lone picture – one of those mass-produced prints you see in office lobbies and faded B&Bs the country over – is the one splash of colour on the walls.

Writer and director Alexander Zeldin’s aesthetic is less gritty realism than grubby realism. For this latest show, Natasha Jenkins’ set is meticulously stained and scuffed, careful to scrub away even the slightest veneer that might coat LOVE’s depiction of the crowded and run-down temporary accommodation in which an appalling number of people are forced to live. In aid of exposing this bleak reality, both stage and production are hyper-naturalistic. Kettles really boil. Toilets really flush. People pause and stutter and share awkward silences.

The situation that provides the premise for LOVE is perhaps even grimmer than that of the zero-hours cleaners at the heart of Zeldin’s previous show, the slowly devastating Beyond Caring. The grey, soulless space created by Jenkins is the communal area of a hostel where homeless families are crammed suffocatingly together, at the mercy of the council’s faceless bureaucracy and seemingly endless hold music. Stuffed into tiny rooms, sharing a broken bathroom and a basic kitchen, there is no privacy here. Even when all the doors are closed, the place hums with voices.

As with Beyond Caring, the action is all played out under bright house lights, with the audience bleeding into the stage. When I reviewed that earlier show, I wrote that Zeldin “asks us not to watch as audience members, but to look on as fellow human beings”. I’d argue that the same is true of LOVE, but I want to worry away just a bit at that distinction. Especially during some of the more wrenching scenes, in which characters are cruelly stripped of their dignity, I wondered whether I wasn’t just being made into a voyeur after all. Poverty porn is an ugly, ugly phrase, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit uncomfortable about my position as a privileged, middle-class spectator (a demographic that’s probably not too atypical of the audience as a whole). What are the ethics of presenting this to us?

Despite my discomfort, which I couldn’t entirely shake off, I do feel that there’s something subtle but crucial about Zeldin’s choice of staging. We as the audience are never wrapped in the comforting anonymity of darkness, gawping unseen at those less fortunate than us. Simply by placing us in shared space and shared light, Zeldin involves, perhaps even implicates us. There’s no solid wall of difference here. And when we are – finally, briefly – acknowledged within the drama, it’s with an overwhelming weight of emotion and responsibility.

For the most part, though, the fourth wall remains in place, if permeable. Through it, Zeldin offers us a glimpse into an eclectic selection of lives. The most seasoned residents are Colin (Nick Holder) and his ageing mother Barbara (Anna Calder-Marshall), for whom he cares with a mixture of blokeish reluctance and surprising gentleness. Tharwa (Hind Swareldahab), arrived from Sudan, mostly keeps herself to herself, emerging from her room to make cups of tea and find phone signal. And desperately hoping to be rehoused by Christmas are Dean (Luke Clarke), his two young kids and his heavily pregnant partner Emma (Janet Etuk). Inevitably, they all impinge on one another’s lives, for better and for worse.

It doesn’t take long to see where the title fits in. Love throbs through this place. It’s not romantic love, not pretty love, not idealised love. Often, it’s love in its most unlikely manifestations; it’s love trying and failing and trying again to be expressed. It’s the kind of love that’s found in getting by or in cleaning up. It’s sudden, unexpected moments of tenderness and even, sometimes, sudden, unexpected moments of anger.

This kind of theatre demands patience. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of how false and constructed theatrical ‘realism’ typically is and how rarely we see an accurate reflection of everyday life, warts and all, on the stage. These characters move at actual rather than dramatic pace. While that might make the action feel initially sluggish, the reward is in a rhythm and a precision that is unshowily exquisite. Zeldin and his performers have a musical sense of pace, allowing each beat to fall just so. And the detail of small movements is everything in this production, creating character through brushes of the hand and twitches of the mouth. It is, aptly for the subject matter, an incredibly compassionate style of performance. Everyone here is flawed, but everyone here is human. You might say the two are one and the same.

Often it’s what lurks at the edges of the show, hidden or only partially shown, which is most powerful. Like quiet Syrian refugee Adnan (Ammar Haj Ahmad), who swiftly appears and disappears, suitcase in hand. His fate remains unknown, but now more than ever you sense it can’t be good. Or like the unseen children of reserved Tharwa, on the other end of the phone and miles and miles away in Sudan. These stories of refugees, while not at the heart of the narrative, feel even more important now than when the show first premiered less than two months ago. The question of why we don’t see more of these characters has nagged at me since stepping out of the theatre, but perhaps their accusing presence on the sidelines is itself a comment on how we marginalise those who come to us seeking shelter.

Shelter is something that’s in short supply for everyone here. The invisible villain throughout is the stripped back, struggling state, with its irrational sanctions and its lack of social housing. Dean and Emma are punished for missing a job centre appointment on the same day they were being turfed out of their home by a rent-raising landlord, while Colin and Barbara have been caught in the limbo of temporary accommodation for a year or more. The piece never turns into a full-on polemic, but then it doesn’t need to. As with Beyond Caring, LOVE simply shows us the indignity of how cruel systems treat human beings, forcing us to really, properly look. And once you have looked, it’s hard to look away.

Photo: Sarah Lee.