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