Michael Cox reviews All That is Wrong, Bullet Catch, Angels, Mess and Blink all showing at the Traverse Two.
Traditionally I start every year's Fringe at the Traverse Two, and this year is no different. In the past, I've found each season to be varied, with a fair mix from the great to the weak. This year, however, I'm happy to report that there isn't a bad one in the bunch.
The day began with All That is Wrong(****), the latest production by Belgian company Ontroerend Goed. Anyone familiar with the company's work knows that they have a terrific habit of being provocative. Past productions have grabbed headlines and have split audiences, sometimes ferociously. So, in many ways, All That is Wrong is, in comparison, rather tame.
But judging it by the company's past is a mistake, because this production stands on its own very well. In fact, in some ways it is the most mature piece I have seen from them. Two performers sit on stage, staring at the audience as they come in. After a slideshow, one of the performers starts to describe her life via a chalk-drawn diagram. This diagram spirals out of control, and it's central starting point of "I" is soon dwarfed by all of the problems found in modern society.
What could have been a shallow performance piece similar to those commonly found in many youth theatres soon becomes poignant agitprop. It is a brave production that not only holds the mirror up to today's political climate but also looks at how easy it is for the earnestness of youth to be obliterated by the monstrosity of the world's problems. Even more heartbreaking is how insignificant, faded and trampled that little starting point of "I" becomes.
Those looking for character and plot are going to find nothing here and will probably leave unfazed. However, those willing to embrace a theatre of ideas will find a rich production that not only makes one think but also questions what kind of a world we are leaving to the next generation. Frightening, not only in its ideas but also in its indictment of how the selfishness of one generation's indulgences have burdened the next.
Next up: Rob Drummond's Bullet Catch (***). Not quite a play, more a celebration of the theatricality of magic acts, in particular with reference to a performance of the titular trick from a hundred years ago which ended in tragedy.
Drummond is one of the finest performers currently working in Scotland. He always comes across as sincere and has a cheeky twinkle in his eye; it is this persona that is the production's greatest asset, for he is consistently watchable and engaging.
However, as a performance it is flawed, especially if you have seen his rather remarkable play Mr Write. Yet this one feels like it has it's training wheels still attached. Upon a few more performances, Bullet Catch might become more polished. For now it's a bit rusty but works for the most part, more to do with Drummond's performance than the script.
On the complete opposite spectrum is Ronan O'Donnell's Angels (****), a searing monologue thankfully revived from Oran Mor's A Play, a Pie and a Pint from last year.
Nick Prentice is in a police lock-up and is about to be questioned. Why or for what are unknown, and he is scared about what's to come. What follows is a man's inner journey played out during interrogation. To say more would be cheating, but it involves spiritual salvation and the power of imagination.
Iain Robertson plays Prentice, and his performance is so overwhelmingly compelling that he has the entire audience in his grasp for the full 50-minute running time without ever letting go. With no set or other actors to play off, Robertson is on his own, and yet the power of his performance is so great it feels like you are in a crowded interrogation room with him. He portrays a man completely put through the wringer, and you are with him every step of the way. It is an honourable, unforgettable performance that lingers long after the play has finished.
It is hard to imagine coming across a finer script than O'Donnell's beautifully written play or a more spirited and passionate performance that the one given by Robertson. This is theatre at its best, direct and poignant, and is without doubt the first must-see production at this year's Fringe. Do not miss it.
Frankly, the set up to Mess (****) sounds awful: a musical comedy about anorexia. Don't be fooled: the title is not prophetic, but is a fair assessment of the main character's life as she struggles with food and body image.
Caroline Horton not only plays the protagonist Josephine but is also the writer, and she has cleverly taken the Mary Poppins approach of using a 'spoonful of sugar' in order to tackle this very pertinent and serious topic.
In many ways, the production's success does not come from 'what' it’s about but more from 'how'. That the company and director manage to pull it all off is down to its spirit. The cast of three (two actors and a musical/sound accompanist) play beautifully off of each other and have a habit of spending as much time speaking with the audience as they do with each other. The songs are mostly fun, and there's almost a hint of vaudeville. And yet, even though it's mostly light and funny, darkness looms and tragedy never seems far off.
Due to this, Mess is actually a brave production. It might class itself as a comedy, but it garners genuine tears and manages to say more about eating disorders than most dramatic pieces I've encountered on the topic. And as the promotional posters say: don't let that put you off.
Phil Porter's Blink (***) is a fun production. Because it's a love story, a lot of what happens is fairly inevitable. Porter's script might not contain a lot of originality, but it does have a few surprising bits and is full of funny moments, resulting in a production that moves quickly.
Does it say anything new or do anything you haven't seen before? No, but it at least does it all well. It might not be the most memorable production, but it's certainly a lot of fun watching it all unfold and has a few moments that are absolute gems.
However, the production's ace lies in its cast of two. Harry McEntire and Rosie Wyatt are a pure delight as Jonah and Sophie. They have a lovely air about them that make you want to side with them, and they play off of each other beautifully. Neither character might be conventional, but they are recognisable, and interesting enough, to make spending time with them worthwhile.
All productions are on at Traverse Two. All That is Wrong is on until August 12, while the others are on until August 26. Performance times vary.