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Michael Across the Festival '12 - Aug 04

Michael Cox reviews Detention, The Dead Memory House, Mother Tongue, Richard DeDomenici--Popaganda, Louise Orwin--Humiliation Piece and The Pain of Desire all showing at Summerhall.


Today, I made the acquaintance of a new venue. Summerhall started at the Festival last year, but this is the first time I have made its acquaintance.

And, what a shining star, it is quite refreshing being in a venue that is its own space. Located at the bottom of the Meadows, the venue is almost like a safe haven from all of the other Festival madness currently plaguing the capital, and unlike most of the other spaces, which feel like a bunch of performance points conveniently strung together, Summerhall is the full package. The place is bursting from the seams, and something is literally happening around every corner, be it music, art exhibitions, film or performance of some type.

That said, my first day of performances have been mixed bag.

First up was Detention (**), a well-meaning piece of physical theatre. Set in a detention hall, four students are stuck copying sentences as punishment. When not being overseen by a semi-tyrannical teacher, they pass the time by doing dance moves, acrobatics and other physical shenanigans.

In truth, there's about forty minutes worth of very good material, and all five performers are very talented and engaging to watch. However, clocking in at seventy minutes, the whole thing feels too dragged out, and every gag and set-up is over-mined to exhaustion. It's a shame, because the hard-work is evident and there are moments that shine brightly. However, as it stands, Detention feels more like a missed opportunity.

Another production that dropped the ball a bit is The Dead Memory House (***). The production is an odd one to describe. Part play and part installation, the audience are invited into a flat where three women are holding a party. Memories are shared and each woman opens up about her life and past.

Structurally it feels under-developed. There are great ideas within, but only a few of them are brought to full bloom, and there are moments that feel like something special is about to happen but never quite comes to pass.

However, the production has two very strong things going for it. First is its set. The design is absolutely remarkable. Even with all the festival bustle happening around, it feels as if you are standing in a genuine lived-in flat. Every inch is teeming with life, and objects begging to be noticed. I wanted more time to wander around, just to take in all of the care and attention to detail which had obviously been put into it.

It's second strength is found in its cast. All three women are superb, bringing to life characters who are interesting and worthy of our time. They interact with the audience with ease and play off of each other splendidly. It's a real shame that the production has such a short running time because, as is the case with the flat, there is obviously much more material to be unearthed.

It is rare for me to register a complaint of brevity, especially as I usually subscribe to the belief of 'less is more'. However, here is a rare case where much more is needed. I would have happily spent twice the time inside the flat with these three interesting women and think that it's a shame that the production's one flaw is making one feel short changed.

Sometimes a production feels a bit out of tune throughout most of the production, only to surprise in the end by how well executed it all ended up being. Case in point: Mother Tongue (****). The play is by Jillian Lauren and it chronicles the difficulties that she and her husband have had while trying to conceive. It mixes movement, film and characterisations of other people from Lauren's life.

There isn't one weak aspect of the production. Lauren is a very talented performer, and though her story is a bit fractured in the beginning, it all comes together logically in the end. This isn't a harsh production that's after constant sucker punches. It instead gives little jabs which still manage to hurt in all the right places. Lauren's soft approach to the story makes it feel all the more intimate, hitting all the right notes, as it leads to its moving conclusion.

One of the more recent success stories in Scottish cultural life has been the launch of the arts programme BUZZCUT. The organisation has had some success over the last few months, and they have a two day engagement at Summerhall, with each day seeing the organisation presenting the work of two artists.

First up today was Richard DeDomenici--Popaganda (****). Describing DeDomenici's set doesn't do him justice. I found him to be a clever instigator of mischief, which he chronicles on video and presents to the audience. It's stand-up, but with a much more 'performance' angle than most. Some bits work better than others, like his lyrics to the theme tune of TV's Cagney and Lacey and his hilarious treatment of the UK tour of the Olympic flame. I found his act very funny, and I would most certainly go out of my way to see him perform again.

Next up was Louise Orwin--Humiliation Piece (****). Orwin strikes a deal with the audience: she will play a form of Truth and Dare, where she will do whatever the audience commands her, so long as she gets to record them answering a question of her choosing. The idea of an audience challenging a performance artist with tasks is nothing new. However, Orwin still manages to create a scenario which is full of meaning.

I will confess that I did not partake in the game, more from the fact that I took great enjoyment watching the audience's reaction to Orwin's challenges. Perhaps she has been given crueller tasks in the past, for it was obvious that this audience cared about her and did not want to humiliate her. Still, the result was a fascinating examination of the relationship between performer and audience member, as well as an interesting look at the actual role of the performer. Brave stuff indeed.

Closing out the night for me was Temper Temper's The Pain of Desire (****). Singer Wendy Bevan and her three musicians play a collection of haunting jazz songs, all under theatrical lights and film projections. Bevan stands mostly still throughout the whole performance, letting her voice do all of the heavy lifting. It is an excellent performance that is beautiful, hypnotic and stirring.

If there was a flaw, it is found in the very room that the performance was given. The acoustics were none too hot, with the music feeling just a little too hard and the clarity of Bevan's voice sounding garbled at times. The essence of what she sang was always clear; the lyrics--not so much.

Nevertheless, The Pain of Desire is a beautiful collection of music, and I look forward to returning to Summerhall tomorrow, if for no other reason than to pick up a CD.

Detention and The Dead Memory House perform until August 26. Mother Tongue plays until August 15. The Pain of Desire performs until August 18. Another performance of BUZZCUT is on August 5, but it involves different performers. All shows are on at Summerhall venue.

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