The 52-Hertz Whale is known as the loneliest whale in the world. It is the only creature of its kind to have been identified, and its unique calls are at a much higher frequency than other whales, limiting its ability to communicate. Swimming a solitary path through the ocean, it is doomed to be alone – the “hermit of the sea”.
This curious starting point becomes the nexus for a delicate but complex web of ideas in Fine Chisel’s latest Fringe offering. In their story, the song of the whale is detected by Ted, a researcher working in an isolated listening station, who finds in the creature an unlikely kindred spirit. Like Ted, whales can never truly switch off – they always have to remain alert so that they can come to the surface for air. And like the 52-Hertz wonder, Ted is cripplingly lonely, sealed off in a world from which he is unable to communicate.
But this melancholy pairing of lonely souls is just one of the many strands that form Fine Chisel’s playful yet meditative show. Their agile, care-filled brand of storytelling hops lightly between past and present, filling the empty room of Ted’s listening station with a crowd of memories from his past. He looks back on his time teaching at a university in the 1960s, when he was persuaded by promising PhD student Fiona to help set up a pirate radio station, a decision that he increasingly regretted. We also see snatches of Ted’s childhood and his close relationship with his uncle Mal, a vicar caught in a crisis of faith.
Every one of Fine Chisel’s characters is desperately grasping onto something. Fiona just wants to raise her voice, but the tools of amplification keep being snatched away from her; Mal is holding onto beliefs that no longer mean anything to him; Ted is chasing the departing tide of his thoughts and the communication he craves. But, unlike many of the other sweet storytelling shows that flood Edinburgh each August, Fine Chisel’s show is unafraid to flex its intellectual muscles. Beneath the beautifully told narrative, smart thinking underpins each point of the plot.
There are plenty of ideas here, from the role of literature and music to the use and organisation of language, but the central anchor is the notion of communication. While whales can communicate over vast distances using their song, the humans who provide Fine Chisel’s focus struggle to do the same. Ted can barely say what he means to those in the same room as him, while Mal fumbles for the words to discuss life’s unanswered questions and Fiona struggles to access the means of voicing her opinions. How does one make one’s mark, both in connecting with those one cares for and in communicating lasting ideas down the decades?
Music is another key mode of communication, as the talented cast of musician performers accompany the narrative with a series of elegantly incorporated songs. Sound evokes everything from the rush of the sea to the song of the whale to the buzz of the radio broadcast station, while the simple but inventive visual aesthetic is appealingly homemade without ever feeling the need to make a point of it. There remains scope for further development – the various different thematic threads, for instance, could be more tightly knitted together – but Fine Chisel’s distinctive frequency already separates them from the crowd.