Chapel Street, Underbelly

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Originally written for IdeasTap.

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.

In a culture that seems determined to paint its youth as violent rioters and benefit-sponging lost causes, Barnes and his characters are paradoxically both embodying and kicking out against those stereotypes. There are shots, kebabs and smashed glass, but there are also concealed depths peeking through the fake-tan facades. Kirsty, it transpires, has ambitions to go to university and would rather go on holiday to Paris than to Kavos; Joe remains unemployed not through a desire to dodge work, but due to a dread of wasting his life in a soulless office.

Such fragments of personality are revealed through overlapping monologues spoken into microphones at opposite sides of the stage, an initially static set-up by director Cheryl Gallacher that gradually unravels into a frenetic reflection of the characters’ escalating intoxication. Performers Cary Crankson and Ria Zmitrowicz weave and stumble around the small space, making convincing and disarming drunks, yet tempering the humour with a poignant strain of vulnerability. The laughs, of which there are many, have a habit of souring in the mouth.

It is a piece that feels very much of the now, offering grim reality but few solutions. Barnes’ lyrical yet gritty language crystallises the brief euphoria and crashing despair of a whole swathe of young people emerging into a world that seems not to want them, with references to useless master’s degrees and the lie of an Olympic “legacy” that delivers very little opportunity. In a telling touch, we are told that the local church has been converted into a bar – home of the new religion. As Joe and Kirsty argue, with the way things are, you “might as well just get fucked”.

Photo: Jassy Earl

Bitch Boxer, Underbelly

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Originally written for IdeasTap.

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. Chloe has wanted to fight ever since a family betrayal fractured her world, but in the lead up to the London 2012 Olympics – the first Games in which women can compete in boxing – two events once again shift the ground beneath her, tripping her footwork.

With a rough sort of poetry, pounded out to the rhythm of punches, Josephine offers us a glimpse into Chloe’s chalk-outlined world. This is more about the individual at its heart than the sport in which she competes, but boxing forms a constant background drumbeat and a language through which to understand life. For Chloe, romance is a winding “sucker-punch of love”, an emotion, like grief, that she can only understand in terms of a knockout blow. Emotion, in this male-dominated world, feels like a weakness.

Beneath the fighting mentality that permeates Chloe’s character, however, there is something surprisingly tender and charming about this piece. Much of that charm radiates from Josephine herself, who somehow makes an activity inherently reliant on two parties – red corner and blue corner – work as a solo show. Hopping from toe to toe and pacing restlessly around the space, she rarely loses the coiled physicality of the boxer, but she also melts into moments of sudden, startling softness; reading a note from boyfriend Jamie, or smiling at a memory.

The other surprise of the show is its humour. From miming deadpan to Eminem, to a gag about Tesco that will never let you read the slogan “every little helps” in quite the same way again, the piece packs as many laughs as it does punches. Ultimately Bitch Boxer is, like the odd affection inspired by real boxing champion Nicola Adams, a reminder of the very human side of a sport often characterised by aggression. For all that the fighting thrills, it is the moment when a closed fist unfurls into an open hand that is the most compelling.

Photo: Jassy Earl