As the Edinburgh Fringe begins, its programme can feel like a huge, knotted, multicoloured tangle of wool. Midway through the festival, people start teasing out and following individual lines: the really depressing year, the year of gig theatre, the year Warwick students took over, the year of drag kings. But the first attempts at imposing order start long before you hit the Mile, when you’re creating rainbow-bright spreadsheets, scouring the fringe programme for shows that are ‘your thing’ or desperately trying to find a kind of coherence to your journey through its hundreds of packed pages. Here’s Exeunt’s Edinburgh review team on the shows that shone out to them in 2017’s programme: read on for some themes we’re calling early.
The boyz are back in town
I’ve got a knack for missing each fringe’s biggest shows so I’m sort of pleased that this year’s programme is full of sure-fire returning hit shows (it’s British Council showcase year, people who know this sort of thing have told me). I got a nostalgic tingle reading that Translunar Paradise was back – everyone at the fringe in 2011 told me they’d wept copiously throughout so I unwisely decided to focus my energies on chirpier but probably lesser shows. I’m also determined not to miss Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, which has had almost as many runs as there are citrus fruits in its title, or Manwatching, or (I Could Go on Singing) Over the Rainbow, or Every Brilliant Thing or Slap Talk or so many more performances that are back for a second or third go at Edinburgh. It’s not entirely ‘spirit of the fringe’ to go and see something you know will be at least reasonably good, but sometimes its 100% what you need.
But even as I write this, something contrary in me is pulling me back to the unknown territory of seeing something utterly untamed, unpredictable, and potentially injurious to my mental/physical health, which is why I can’t resist the sound of Break Up (We Need to Talk). A gang of performers in banana suits will create and destroy a relationship over the course of FIVE HOURS and maybe it’ll be a terrible waste of 300 minutes I could have allocated to scooping up hits but I don’t care. Some banana skins are worth slipping on. (Alice Saville)
The year with a bit less science than usual (sorry, Wellcome Trust)
If you drew a Venn diagram where one set represented ‘science’ and the other ‘Edinburgh Fringe theatre’ the degree of overlap would be understandably miniscule. It seems there’s not much call for gripping tales of quantum physics, which is rather a shame as I, for one, would certainly love to see more of it on Edinburgh stages. Nevertheless, every year when I go through the Fringe programme, I keep my eyes peeled for science-themed shows. Although I didn’t come across many this year, but here are a few which look intriguing.
Since their excellent Pioneer in 2014, Curious Directive have been my go-to company for interesting, finely-crafted stories with science at their heart. And, although it flirts with the gimmicky in using VR headsets, their Frogman is one of my 2017 must-sees. Elsewhere, I’m looking forward to Baba Brinkman’s winning-sounding combination of rap and neuroscience with Baba Brinkman’s Rap Guide to Consciousness. For those who prefer their science with a healthy dash of history, Atlas rehashes the 1680s rivalry between Edmund Halley, Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren, with a cameo from Isaac Newton. And as if an answer to my prayers, there will be quantum physics on stage when Dr. Laura Bailey brings Andrea Brunello’s classroom monologue, The Principle of Uncertainty, to Sweet Holyrood. Entertainment and knowledge: that kind of two for the price of one is hard to beat. (Crystal Bennes)
Students showing everyone else up
It can be tricky to untangle the good student theatre from the downright how-did-they-get-here stuff. Two student shows at the fringe this time round made a huge impact on me when they performed at National Student Drama Festival earlier this year. Celebration by Emergency Chorus took NSDF by storm. It is an attempt to shove away the horror of the news over the past year, and a party full of joy, childish play and friendship. The way Ben Kulvichit and Clara Potter-Sweet hug, hold and wrestle with each other will stay with you, and you will want to be friends with them both by the end of the show.
Pub Corner Poets’ Sad Little Man, which also shook many at NSDF and originates from Hull, where the festival was held this year, is a beautifully poetic exploration of a devastating relationship. With artfully direction including elements of physical theatre and gently placed humour, playwright Josh Overton takes you to a world where three and a half seconds last a lifetime.
Outside of NSDF, I’m excited to see The Reactivists’ Hear All About It, a new show every week based on the news the week before, and Lamplit’s Roaming Collusions, a rare clowning piece from student theatre, which focuses on female friendship. As a former Bristol student I hate to admit it, but both are adding to the wave of fascinating experimental work coming out of Warwick University.
There are a few more student shows I haven’t seen yet but am really looking forward to. Argonaut’s Action At A Distance, by a group of recent graduates from the University of East Anglia, explores ethical dilemmas and American politics. London students explore familial lack of communication in their devised show Alan, We Think You Should Get a Dog, and CalArts students from the states have created a multimedia ‘survival ritual’ for an interactive performance called The end, the end, the end… For a generation of so-called snowflakes, seems like we’re tackling some pretty heavy stuff head-on. (Kate Wyver)
A summer of powerful women
I’m not sure if this says more about me or the Edinburgh Fringe 2017, but this year my schedule contains several shows that could be termed ‘canonical women – remixed’. My personal favourite of these (without having seen them) is the fantastically named Lady Macbeth: Unsex Me Here. Performed over at Dance Base by Nijinsky’s Last Jump, my interest in this links partly to the feeling that ‘Unsex Me Here!’ would make a pretty great superhero incantation [if I go insane this year, I might just start screaming it in the centre of Summerhall], and partly to the group’s exploration of gender in contemporary and Shakespearean Britain via three male dancers performing as Lady McB.
Other shake-ups of theatre’s best-known (but not always best-loved) women include Seongbukdong Beedoolkee’s Medea on Media (C venues). The Korean group deconstruct both Euripides’s character and the traditional format of storytelling. Moving forward through the history of playwriting, Yael Farber’s South African re-location of Strindberg’s Miss Julie returns to the festival (Mies Julie, Assembly Rooms). Yes, Salomé wasn’t all that, but with Knives in Hens about to open at the Donmar, this might be a good way of reminding yourself why people rave about the director.
As a final point, I’m going to change tracks and approach the idea of women re-told from a different point of view. Moving outside of fictional female characters, are two interesting shows telling real-life women’s stories. The Last Queen of Scotland (Underbelly) by Jaimini Jethwa considers the lives of the Ugandan-Asian community in exile in Dundee, whilst Jo Clifford’s new production Eve (co-written by Chris Goode) references the Genesis view of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ to tell her personal story and discuss being transgender. Whatever the story, these women are not made-from-a-rib bit part players. Maybe it’s *cough* all about Eve. (Rosemary Waugh)
Tales as Old as Time
For the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year, I find myself gravitating towards shows based on themes and stories that are old and ancient, like an archaeologist with a curious longing to sift through earth searching for treasures from the past, or a time-traveller, perhaps. On my list this year are Odyssey, the multi-award-winning physical theatre adaptation of Homer’s classic by Ad Infinitum, which has been touring the world for eight years and now returns to the Fringe; Siren, the debut musical play by comedian David Elms, about ‘a siren, a ship, a song’, which promises poignancy wrapped in music and comedy; Luke Wright’s Frankie Vah, the much-treasured poet’s second verse play, which is set in 1987; The Portable Dorothy Parker, an enticing-looking import from America by Grove Goddess Productions and Fringe Management, in which Dorothy Parker sorts through her life’s writing while musing about her famous friends of the Algonquin Round Table, the founding of the New Yorker magazine, her loves and losses. I’m looking forward to seeing sexy Australian chanteuse Meow Meow perform her take on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale in Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid at the Edinburgh International Festival, and to Volcano Theatre’s Seagulls, a site-specific adaptation of Chekhov’s famous play.
And then there is the show I am the most curious about, because I know there will be a nearly tangible aureole of irony surrounding me personally, sitting in the theatre, taking my notes for a review and playing my part in an ancient partnership between artists and their audiences: Wild Bore brings together three laser-tongued, award-winning performance artists, Zoe Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott, to address the subject of…arts critics. (Joy Martin)
A picture-perfect new venue
I’m excited to brave the 11am* start for Deborah Pearson’s History History History, part of the Cameo Live series of free performances at Edinburgh’s beautiful Cameo Cinema, one of the oldest surviving cinemas in Scotland. Opened in 1914 and featured in Sylvain Chomet’s equally beautiful film The Illusionist, this is a chance to see exciting theatre in a place that’s uniquely important in its own right. Also apparently the chairs are really comfortable, so if that early start gets you, at least you won’t be sweating away in a tin can. There are several acclaimed shows on as part of the residency, but I’m particularly looking forward to finally seeing Pearson’s performance, “a show for lovers of film, and for anyone who has stared at pictures of their ancestors a little too long.” (Lauren Mooney)
*that’s early at the Fringe, honestly
Lyn Gardner once suggested that solo shows can be an “excuse for cost cutting, showing off or solipsism”. And while it is true that there is a surfeit of one-man/woman shows at the Fringe, some of them emerge as outstandingly powerful, innovative or just plain hilarious. Emily Carding’s performance of Richard III features audience interaction, a swivel chair and an iPhone – she’s back in Edinburgh this summer after a host of warm reviews last year. What If I Told You, directed by multi Fringe First winner Chris Goode, is a new performance that straddles the line between dance and theatre, exploring Pauline Mayer’s (her)story as a black woman, dancer and choreographer. And at the Free Fringe, Fifty Shades of Grey meets Alan Partridge in Jenny May Morgan’s comic creation Pamela DeMenthe, a self-published author of erotic fiction. Over fifty minutes she presents the secrets to her literary success, reads excerpts from her latest novel Sticky Digits, and lets drop insights into her sordid private life. (Geoff Mills)
A queer odyssey
My last experience of the fringe was as a playwright, trying to work out how to sell a play about a lesbian relationship between two feminist puppeteers to confused tourists on the Royal Mile (Canon Warriors 2016). This fringe I’m show-less. The chief benefits of this are a) I don’t have to flyer in the rain in a cagoule borrowed from my dad; b) I have more time to seek out other theatre with LGBTQ+ characters, storylines and sensibilities.
Trans stories are at the heart of a number of shows in this year’s festival; the increasingly hostile political climate, as reflected in Trump’s transgender military ban, makes it even more urgent that these stories are performed and watched. Adam at the Traverse tells the true story of a young Egyptian trans man who seeks asylum in Scotland. The multimedia production will incorporate a choir of 120 trans individuals from around the world.
Also at the Traverse, early risers can kick off their day with Dive Queer Party’s Rainbow Soapbox. I’m not entirely sure what their queer cabaret ‘party political broadcast’ consists of or why it’s at 10am but it sounds fun. Speaking of cabaret, I’m psyched to experience Hot Brown Honey again. Prepare to be amazed by the Honeys’ tightrope walk (well definitely an aerial act) between searing postcolonial critique and outrageously feminist fun. As the Honeys say, ‘Fighting the power never tasted so sweet’.
Back to theatre (though all these shows are as genre-bending as they are gender-bending), I’m looking forward to Chris Woodley’s autobiographical solo show The Soft Subject (A Love Story) on drama teaching, heartbreak and The Little Mermaid. Perhaps it’s stretching my self-imposed theme a little, but Sh!t Theatre’s new show, Dollywould, is celebrating a queer icon, Dolly Parton. I’m hoping it delivers their trademark irreverent humour, inappropriately catchy (catchily inappropriate?) songs and fabulously DIY costumes. In terms of emerging theatre makers, I can’t wait to see Hotter by queer performance collective, Transgression Productions. Researched through interviews with women and nonbinary people aged from 16 to 97, the show responds to the question, ‘What gets you hot?’, and promises to get you dancing (confession – I know them – but their work is really really good).
Plenty to start with on my queer circumnavigation of Edinburgh. I’m still borrowing the cagoule just in case (thanks Dad). (Hannah Greenstreet)