Since the start of August, reviewers for The F-Word have been at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Here are their takes on a variety of shows that cover topics from sanity to Sappho
Sans Salomé – Until 24 August, 17:15, theSpace on Niddry St
Reviewed by Tara Msiska
Oscar Wilde’s quest to persuade the iconic Sara Bernhardt to star in his play Salomé is paralleled by the modern day story of a lesbian couple whose relationship suffers under the strain of parental homophobia. Humour, lighting effects and haunting music combine to weave a complex and scathing picture of how social scandal, parental disapproval and the idea that homosexuality is incompatible with religion prevent people from being with the ones they love. It’s an unsentimental look at homophobia’s effect on individuals and it mocks stereotypical portrayals of the queer community. Wilde’s charming, confident personality and his disdain of the conventions of his age are perfectly captured by the witty dialogue.
The message of this play is relevant to all sexual taboos and stigmatised family forms. You certainly don’t have to be queer to relate to it. “We both live in a time where our thoughts are disallowed,” says Wilde. The focus is on freedom of thought and expression, which is a fresh take on this issue.
This show has a compelling plot and is hilarious. Go see it. Historical fact meets fiction as the play explores how, in Wilde’s century and our own, same sex couples are condemned to live Sans Salomé: without peace.
Cartwheels – Until 26 August, 23:00, C Venues – C Nova
Reviewed by Vivienne Egan
This imaginative piece takes its cues from both naturalism and absurdism, as three friends – students just exiting their teens – discover the implications of an unintended pregnancy. Amy, Karen and Dorian are share-housing, smoking and staying out all night when, despite protective measures, Amy and Dorian manage to conceive a child.
Karen is the no-nonsense best friend, who attempts to counsel her friends. The play explores how their relationships, ethics and philosophies are challenged by the turn of events. Breaking up the plot scenes, playwright James Hart has woven in abstract, mysterious interstitials that kept me guessing till the end.
One of the best elements of the play for me was Karen’s straight-up explanation of what’s growing inside Amy: “It’s a zygote,” she says. “You can’t kill it because it isn’t alive.” Her emotion-free response is a refreshing perspective – especially when you compare it to euphemistic Hollywood treatment of unplanned pregnancy (particularly films like Knocked Up and even Juno).
This new piece of writing is an ambitious and reasonably mature discussion of pregnancy and abortion, conception and loss, childhood and adulthood, and it’s a subject that will certainly have you asking: “What would I do in their shoes?”
Credible Likable Superstar Role Model – Until 25 August, 17:45, Pleasance Dome
Reviewed by Hazel Robertson
Veteran fringe performer Bryony Kimmings’ latest offering is both theatre and campaign launch-pad. In a glittery woodland set, Kimmings has charge of her nine-year-old niece, Taylor, for the summer. Her early self-examination finds her status as an adult role-model wanting, but looking to media and popular culture for a fitting example proves difficult too. When Taylor is out of earshot, Kimmings rallies against the sexualisation of young girls through aggressive toy advertising and lewd pop songs and videos. Rather than fight negative media messages, Bryony decides to make a new role model exactly to Taylor’s specifications. The resulting character is part palaeontologist and part pop-star, who now tours school assemblies teaching sweet and catchy songs and dance routines.
Kimmings’ design of monologue, interspersed with music and dance sequences works brilliantly. Taylor’s pop dance routines contrast superbly with powerful action segments, including a magical dream-like sequence of Taylor and Bryony dressed as shining white knights fighting angrily against an invisible enemy. However, although the individual components of the show are excellent, the piece is not slick with different segments forming a silted and patchwork performance.
Credible Likable Superstar Role Model in funny and very moving in places but also manages to present a serious criticism of the sexualisation of childhood and the need for more assured role models.
Two – Until 14 August, 21:40, Spotlites @ The Merchant’s Hall
Reviewed by Alyson Macdonald
While the advertising blurb for this production paints it as a gritty political drama about a community ground down under Thatcherism, it’s really nothing like that. The title, Two, refers to the fact that the central theme of the – largely apolitical – play is marriage. The pub setting is used to show us a cross-section of the community and explore their relationships. Some are comic, such as the woman whose frustration with her small and timid husband has led her to fantasise about big, rugged men from mythology. However, it also addresses more serious issues like the loneliness of a surviving partner and domestic violence.
The play has the potential to be incredibly powerful but with each of the actors playing seven different characters in a little over an hour, it’s a very demanding piece to perform or direct. This production has been staged by a student group from Durham University, and while they’re good amateur actors, I couldn’t help feeling that they’d overreached a little.
Sappho…in 9 Fragments – Until 10 August, 19:15, theSpace @ Venue 45
Reviewed by Vivienne Egan
A lone woman twists and writhes in a maze of ropes, her husky voice echoing from behind curtains in a foreign tongue. This is Sappho, the woman whose poetry and practice gave birth to the term lesbian as we know it today. Despite her fame and notoriety, there are only nine extant fragments of her work today, leaving us with gaps, textual lacunas, to fill.
These gaps take on a highly symbolic quality within this one-woman play by Jane Montgomery Griffiths, as the ancient Sappho revels in her subversiveness and rails against the voices overlaid on her work by men, who attempt to fill in the gaps, “mansplaining” Sappho to the masses.
As they play progresses, we see a modern day Sapphic love story play out between two women, actors in a piece of ancient Greek theatre: one, a mature and respected performer, the other a recent graduate who falls in love with her, Atthis (the object of the literary Sappho’s love). The searing pain and unbearable longing that makes Sappho’s work so remarkable is brought to life with a startling immediacy.
Victoria Grove’s performance of Sappho/Atthis is many things that are culturally forbidden of women: in control, physically dominant and even aggressive. She gets sweaty, she subverts heteronormativity. It’s at once highly literary and basely animalistic. With only a short Fringe run, it’s sure to sell out.
XY – Until 25 August, 12:45, Pleasance Courtyard
Reviewed by Tara Msiska
XY tells original stories through a sketch show format. It’s not very boundary-pushing from a feminist perspective but what it does do well is explore issues of gender, sex equality and commodification of bodies.
The sex of some characters is hidden as three characters mourn a death, the liberal online media prepare to test an ebook’s recipe for semen-infused food and a new product goes out of control in a scene which has as much commentary on parenting and the constrictive social expectations of young women as it does on marketing. In a way, all parents are pressured by social norms to create daughters who are perfect products and who fit in in the “marketplace” of society. The show also explores how fetishes can confuse the partner without the fetish but can ultimately be accepted as something uniquely part of the person, even if only one of the couple finds pleasure in it.
XY is full of humour, from wacky anecdotes to kooky characters. The dialogue is witty – like a dirtier version of That Mitchell And Webb Look but with more social commentary squeezed into these bite-size scenes.
Specie – Until 26 August, 12:10, Pleasance Dome
Reviewed by Alyson Macdonald
Specie is set in a near-future version of Earth where medical advances have made it possible for anyone with a few thousand pounds to spare to change their biological sex overnight. Interestingly, this development doesn’t herald an immediate end to gender roles but instead brings new complications. A couple argue over whether to change their young daughter’s sex to give her a better chance in life, while the Catholic church worries about whether its priests still have their original genitalia.
The whole play has been carefully thought out from concept to execution and it looks impressively choreographed, giving it a polished feel that’s missing from many Fringe productions. The music is a noticeable presence, not least because it is performed by two actors with electric guitars who follow the rest of the cast around at key moments. It doesn’t look naturalistic but this is intentional, and in the context of a play about the roles of science and nature it works very well.
Specie sounds bizarre, and in places it is, but Fat Git Theatre have managed to find a space between po-faced worthiness and the utterly ridiculous. If your interest is piqued by the words “science” and “gender”, I’d definitely recommend it.
H to He – Until 25 August, 20:35, Hill Street Theatre
Reviewed by Hazel Robertson
The Hill Street Theatre in the New Town is home to the Fringe’s festival of solo performers. H to He is Claire Dowrie’s work of comedic theatre which recalls the day that she wakes to find that she is transitioning into a man. The piece makes reference to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and similarly devotes most of the story to the exploration of a new and unfamiliar body. H to He is hugely funny in places and Dowrie is certainly a talented performer; she does a brilliant job of maintaining the piece’s momentum and generating a warm repertoire with her audience.
Disappointingly most of the comedy was derived from tired and dated gender stereotypes: Dowrie finds that her new gender gives her an inability to see dust, describe room colour in anything other than basic terms or put the toilet seat down. H to He is a somewhat superficial experience and perhaps misses an opportunity to really examine the nature of gender transitioning. A piece of theatre on this topic could have said so much more on the performed nature of gender but instead the subject matter is played for easy and uninspired laughs in this enjoyable show.
The Walls – Until 17 August, times vary, Space Cabaret @ 54
Reviewed by Vivienne Egan
Carrie, a young researcher gets too close to the bone as she explores, while researching her PhD, cases of women wrongfully institutionalised in eras gone by. But surrounding her are women whose fragile mental health means the research is very personal, and Carrie struggles to maintain a scholarly detachment as she deals with her mother and an insistent new friend, Lucy.
The cast (from University College London Union’s drama society) give some very believable performances in this new piece of writing. Sensitive and compelling performances come from the incarcerated women of Carrie’s research, and from Lucy, who also suffers from mental health issues.
This play brings up the fascinating history of institutionalisation of women, both now and in the past: it captures the frustrating catch-22 that many women (and men) found themselves in at the time. Unsatisfied, misunderstood or abused at home, they were taken to institutions, only to find that the very protestations of sanity and innocence were exactly what kept them locked away, described as “irrational”, deemed unfit for society and left to deteriorate in captivity.
The play gives a real voice to some marginalised groups in history and it’s worth comparing how often words like “irrational” and “emotional” are still used to silence women today.
Close to You – Until 17 August, 14:45, Greenside
Reviewed by Louise Hemfrey
Close to You is about one young woman’s struggle with her eating disorder, which is transcendently linked to her celebrity idol Karen Carpenter from The Carpenters.
The message most clearly sent by this piece was that women are their own worst enemies. Whether it be our pinching, pulling, nipping and tucking in front of our bedroom mirrors, our silent studies of strangers in our midst, or our insipid commenting on perceived idiosyncrasies, we are judged and so judge in return. Where interpretations diverge depends on one’s standpoint of whether the faults of society or the faults of character are being epitomised in this piece.
A minimalist, art-installation style set framed by ghostly mannequins and accompanied by a keyboard soloist make Close to You a truly unique experience.
The first photo is from Sans Salomé. A woman and a man lie on their backs; the photo is of their faces next to each other.
The second photo, from Credible Likable Superstar Role Model, shows a woman stands next to a young girl, against a blue blackground.
The third photo, from Sappho…in 9 fragments, is by Robert Piwko and shows a woman performing on ropes.
The fourth photo is from Specie and shows a young man wearing make up.
The fifth photo is from The Walls and shows a woman on a landline telephone next to red walls.