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Across the Festival: August 11--Summerhall

Michael Cox reviews Tales from the MP3, Standby for the Tape Back-Up and Biding Time (remix).

Liverpool-based theatre company 20 Stories High have brought their young actors company to the Fringe in a production that sounds gimmicky at best. The concept is that the company recorded themselves speaking about different issues and for these conversations to be acted out on stage. But there are two catches: a) a different member of the company will play the voice, and b) these recordings have been put onto MP3 players that the company sync together and listen to while acting.

The result is Tales from the MP3 (****), a production that ends up being far fresher and more insightful into the lives of young people than most recent productions focusing on youth. It’s helped that the entire company are made up of a very mixed, likeable group of people, and they speak in genuine voices that constantly ring true.

But where the play manages to rise above the trappings of verbatim theatre are in the moments where the ‘script’ is paused either in order to allow extra commentary (usually by the actual person being depicted) or to perform musical interludes. By doing this, the production feels much richer and more heartfelt.

Verbatim theatre might have become a bit passé, but Tales is a breath of fresh air. It’s authentic, feels immediate and has an energetic company that many supposed seasoned performers currently acting on the Fringe could learn a thing or two from. Bravo!

There is a rather great idea buried in the shenanigans of Ross Sutherland’s Standby for the Tape Back-Up (***). The hour-long piece is a look at how we as humans are wired to find patterns in random things. The object of attention is a video tape that Sutherland and his grandfather made over the years, recording films, TV programmes, adverts, football matches and music videos. Looking back over the tape, he finds echoes of his life within those recordings, recordings which the audience are allowed to watch projected onto a wall (or also on a TV screen onstage).

It’s a very good idea, and Sutherland is a fun performer to watch. His analysis (over-analysis, really) of pop-culture is very clever and would make any poetry or language teacher in love with double meaning and symbolism proud.

It’s a lot of fun and has some winning moments, but on the whole the production feels a bit too clever for its own sake, with gags and Sutherland’s knack for timing a word or phrase to an image projected becoming the main event. It’s mostly surface material, enjoyable but lacking the very potent meaning that we are led to believe the video tape has for Sutherland.

Biding Time (remix) (****) is utterly bonkers. The acclaimed group A Band Called Quinn share an L-shaped platform with a large white rabbit, and through music, projections and filmed interludes the tale of a rock band’s rise and fall is performed, charting the band’s experience in the music business. How much is taken from personal experience? Quite a lot, I’d be willing to bet. Much of the story is pretty clichéd, and we aren’t given much chance to invest in any of the four band members as individuals.

But as a multimedia experience, Biding is something else. Produced as a silent disco, the audience are given headphones, resulting in a richer soundscape than a live production would warrant. The projections are constantly interesting, mostly pretty with cheeky flashes of humour throughout, and the smoke and the flashing lights create a fun ambiance.

But it’s the music that’s most important, and it’s here that Biding soars. Almost every track is terrific, with each song standing well on its own but also serving a narrative. With Ben Harrison’s direction (of Grid Iron) and the band’s excellent performance skills, the production is a surreal hour well worth a jump down the rabbit whole—so long as you’re willing to go with it. Fight its charms, or look for some coherent through-line, and you’re likely to feel abandoned in a haze of confusion.

Biding Time (remix) is part of the Made in Scotland programme.

All productions are on at Summerhall. Check programme or website for dates and times.

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