Over at the Bike Shed there was light relief in the form of Flushed from Theatre Rush – a fresh, funny and quirky 40 minutes spent in the company of four women and a bathtub. In and out of the tub, using direct address, the performers (Becky Baker, Robyn Steyn, Katie Villa and Chloe Whipple – all displaying immense charisma and comedic finesse) muse on independence, vulnerability, body image and sexuality. There’s a great Boudicca tableau, an auction that makes an astute comment on the marketisation of women’s bodies, and a chance for a little bit of audience participation (but only if you want to – and if you’re quick enough, ladies). With great performances and genuinely funny writing, it’s one of those lovely little treats that make fringe festivals such a pleasure to explore.
Staying at the Bike Shed – having taken the time to sample an Ignite cocktail, made with tequila, crÃ¨me de cacao and sloe gin – Exeter writer Cally Hayes’s Big Society tackled Cameron’s programme of community engagement with wit and energy. A trad romp that could have been called Whoops! There Goes the NHS!, it played to a packed house and contained some well-observed absurdities, notably Tom (Eddie Holden), in a moment of suicidal despair, calling the Psychological Intervention Service set up by his wife as a social enterprise, only to be led down a series of increasingly ridiculous automated options, the hold music Captain Sensible’s ‘Happy Talk.’
Again at the Bike Shed, Provocation Productions’ Bursary Boy dealt with a current concern of obscene dimensions – institutional child abuse within the Catholic Church. On the eve of his ordination into the priesthood, Peter (Ed Browning) has doubts about his vocation. Visiting his old headmaster, Father Kennedy (Pavel Douglas), for advice and assurance, he receives confession of the most unspeakable kind from his former mentor. Confined to Father Kennedy’s bedsit, the script and imagery convey both the walls of silence surrounding the abuse and the increasingly narrow options available to Peter as the truth seeps out. Douglas’s portrayal of the abuser, himself abused, is convincing in its shifting of blame, and Browning’s growing horror and self-recrimination is well played. The climax is bleak in the extreme – there are no survivors here.
Back at the Cygnet, London-based Epsilon Productions presented Skin Tight, a play by New Zealander Gary Henderson about Tom and Elizabeth’s life-long passion, from school days through to old age. Enhanced by a simple set design evoking a nostalgic rural aesthetic, a photographic montage plays at the back of the performance space as the audience settles down, the original score by Gareth Jones adding to the poetic, romantic atmosphere. The characters, circling each other like animals, on occasion crashing together in a frenzy of lust or anger, reminisce about their conjoined histories; there’s mention of a daughter, but almost in passing – it’s clear that for these two it is only each other that matters. In sharing their joint and separate experiences, the images evoked through their ardent exchanges bring their world into sharp focus. The script is occasionally overblown, and the unfamiliar place names can jar, but most impressive here are the performances – Angela Bull and John Schumacher totally convince as lovers reliving a grand passion. It’s romantic, vigorous, erotic and chest-crushingly sad, in equal measure.
Next up, and hosted by the newest addition to the venue roster – the intimate cocktail bar upstairs at Oddfellows – was Bristol-based Jack Dean’s wonderful Under Stokes Croft. Inspired by Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, Dean combines nimble lyricism and disarmingly naive animations to tell the stories of a handful of residents of Bristol’s bohemian quarter and the orange furry monster who watches over their hopes, dreams and disappointments. Dean’s characterisations are well crafted, poignant and, at times, very funny – the positive-thinking workshop from Jeremy ‘call me Jezzo’ is a side-splitter – combining to create an eloquent and charming ode to home, communities and the people who make them. By hearing first the characters’ night-time visions, we are drawn more deeply into their lives, the more wistful set pieces highlighting how easily dreams can be deflated, by business, by politics, by market forces, by the daily grind.
The sweet, DIY aesthetic of the animations keep it light where it could get maudlin, and although there are echoes of characters from Thomas’s poem, it’s Dean’s original and insightful look at the everyday experiences of city dwellers that is fresh and could transfer to any community battling modern malaises. Sometimes the descriptions are loaded with pathos, running counterpoint to the innocence of the drawings – a nice way to explore the daily dichotomy of city life.
Finally, the Bike Shed hosted the most enjoyable piece of the festival, and it was the last one I saw: Lucy Hopkins’s Le Foulard – a brilliantly crafted and hilarious piece about artistic pretension, creativity and inner conflict. From the UK but now based in Paris, Hopkins trained at the Jacques Lecoq school, so it’s a given that the physical aspect of this one-woman show is assured and exquisitely played, but the writing is as masterly as the movement. Through immaculately controlled gesture and expression, Hopkins introduces us to The Artist, a ‘genius’ who has entered our midst to enliven our artistically impoverished lives via her new company, ArtSoul (just the one member so far). What follows is a performance of astonishing dexterity and skill that manages to be both achingly funny and unfailingly perceptive about the creative process, as the characters that The Artist conjures to impress us soon begin to demand their own place in the limelight. Between the brooding Spanish diva creating drama out of conjugating verbs, and the lovelorn bundle of anxieties whose rictus-inducing optimism is belied by her runaway tics and twitches, each character is fully rounded and utterly credible. There’s also the best description of polishing the proverbial turd that I’ve ever heard. Outstanding.
Although Ignite spans six other venues, the Bike Shed, with its its subterranean retro bar feels very much the hub of this lively festival. I only scratched the surface – damn the day job! – but it’s given me the taste for more. Roll on next year.