New Voices in Edinburgh

As part of the giddy, hectic and slightly insane experience that was my first fringe, I was lucky enough (thanks to IdeasTap) to catch all five plays that made up the Old Vic New Voices Edinburgh season at Underbelly. This is just one example of what seems to be a growing trend towards curation within the uncurated, amorphous bubble of the festival; other models along these lines include those adopted by Escalator East to Edinburgh and Northern Stage at St Stephen’s. While the hit and miss nature of the fringe is part of its quirky charm, there is something quite comforting about having these reliable miniature programmes to retreat to through the haze of clumsy adaptations and misplaced whimsy.

The emphasis of the Old Vic New Voices programme is, unsurprisingly, very much on “new writing”. The pieces are small, with a bias towards monologues and two-handers, but the writing and productions all proved themselves to be solid and often exciting. The whole season was, as Edinburgh goes, a pretty safe bet, though without the safeness of subject matter that implies. The advantage of a curated programme was also in seeing how these different pieces refracted through one another, experiencing them both as standalone plays and as part of a wider context.

If they have a future life, which I suspect they will, it would be fascinating to see these plays reformulated into double bills. Chapel Street and One Hour Only would be my top pick for a pairing, but Bitch Boxer and Strong Arm could also make a fascinating juxtaposition. While Edinburgh can easily become a distorted blur of production after production, seeing pieces whose placement alongside one another actively informs their reception is a refreshing and intriguing exercise. Here are a few more of my thoughts on the programme …

Glory Dazed

While his friends come home in coffins and wheelchairs, Ray knows that war can make you lose something other than life or limb. Returning to Doncaster with frustrated aggression and tortured memories, the only thing that Ray is any good at these days is fighting. But there’s no memorial service or prosthetic aid for being messed up in the head. Read more …

Bitch Boxer

Every fighter has a reason.

That’s the thinking behind this new show written and performed by Charlotte Josephine, taking a particularly timely dive into the world of female boxing. Read more …

One Hour Only

AJ’s mates have bought him a banging present for his 21st birthday – quite literally.

Out of place in a classy London brothel, the gift he ends up with is Marly, a cash-strapped student in her first night on the job, with whom he has more in common than he expected. Read more …

Strong Arm

Sporting ambition and athletic excellence are high on the national consciousness as the country continues to ride the wave of Olympic success. When competitiveness goes up a weight class into pure obsession, however, that same determination to succeed becomes altogether more disturbing. Read more …

Chapel Street

On Chapel Street, “every week it’s shit”.

Same people, same bars, same drinks. Or so we’re told by Joe and Kirsty, both out on a Friday night and each with their own reasons to seek oblivion. Through these two characters, Luke Barnes’ viciously funny and quietly devastating two-hander sketches out a searing, booze-stained portrait of the Pro-Plus generation, grabbing at their next energy kick while putting off tomorrow. Read more …

 

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Strong Arm, Underbelly

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Originally written for IdeasTap.

Sporting ambition and athletic excellence are high on the national consciousness as the country continues to ride the wave of Olympic success. When competitiveness goes up a weight class into pure obsession, however, that same determination to succeed becomes altogether more disturbing.

Roland Poland has a lot to prove. Cursed with rolls of fat and a ridiculous name, he finds unexpected strength after visiting Plates, a run-down gym above a butcher’s shop where pumping iron becomes a substitute for emotional fulfilment. Eyes transfixed on the goal of becoming Mr Britain and discovering what Arnold Schwarzenegger calls “The Pump”, Roland guzzles protein shakes and doses up on science, trying every tactic possible to get stronger.

Although entitled Strong Arm, Finlay Robertson’s protein- and testosterone-fuelled play is more concerned with another appendage. Roland, played with humour and granite-eyed determination by Robertson, fantasises about having veins so popped that he resembles a giant penis. He spunks while working out and reels off the names of “hardcore” supplements that have a hint of the pornographic. In a deeply sexualised world, strength seems to be synonymous with virility, offering a deeply critical vision of what it means to prove one’s masculinity.

Much like Roland, Robertson’s writing has more to it than it initially appears. While seeming to promise to be a vaguely amusing one-man show, it teases at our expectations, even offering up the dramatically disappointing possibility of sentimental catharsis before snatching it away again. Although grounded in a recognisable world, there is just enough strangeness to the writing – the unlikely, Dahl-esque names, the vividly grotesque descriptions – to lace the piece with a sense of the surreal and sinister.

The same might be said of Kate Budgen’s direction and James Turner’s design, which each reveal themselves as increasingly clever. The performance space is backed with a set of four mirrors, as rusting and distorted as Roland’s perception of himself, through which coloured strip lights flicker like the neon of strip clubs or of the signs on which Roland dreams of seeing his name.

Because ultimately this is all about self-identity. In a society in thrall to the media, in which outcasts can become superheroes and a bodybuilder is a Hollywood hero, to demonstrate superhuman strength is to gain fame, validation and, most importantly, acceptance.

Photo: Jassy Earl