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The Idiot Colony / Charlie Victor Romeo / Plastic / I Caught Crabs in Walberswick

The Idiot Colony – Pleasance – 4 stars
Charlie Victor Romeo – Pleasance – 3 stars
Plastic – Underbelly – 3 stars
I Caught Crabs In Walberswick – Pleasance – 3 stars

How sensitive should theatre be to real-life taboos without going down the route of didacticism, shock or sensory overload? In the case of The Idiot Colony, an impressionistic depiction of three womens’ incarceration in a mental hospital straight out of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, incorporating any such attention-seeking tactics would only cheapen a delicate thing made of damaged poetry and slow-moving grace.

This debut show by the RedCape Theatre company starts with the trio all lined up like pretty maids in a row, their hair covering their faces like an escapee from a Japanese horror flick, but clad in white hospital robes instead of death-black. When the women come out from under their fringes, we’re allowed a glimpse inside their minds from the safety of the residential hair salon which provides sanctuary of sorts. One woman works through the styles of movie femme fatales and remembers how she had her first orgasm in the cinema. Another recalls a far more brutal sexual awakening. Then, beyond the heightened sexualisation, there’s the silent girl who sheds leaves from her hair and spits out jewelled pebbles.

Devised by the company and based on first hand accounts, in lesser hands such material could have ended up as shrill as any piece of mad woman in the attic realism. Redcape, though, are more interested in exploring the subtle physical nuances that make up the womens’ every-day rituals. Under the guidance of director Andrew Dawson, whose Herald Angel winning Absence and Presence tapped into the intimacies of loss a couple of years ago, the result is beautifully accomplished.

Its precision and over-riding poignancy, however, is leavened by the comforts of 1980s pop and a stab at the Birdie Dance before sheer terror takes hold. As played by Claire Coache, Cassie Friend and Rebecca Loukes, there are some devastatingly effective stage pictures on show, made even more startling by their horrifying simplicity. One is a drowning. The other a lobotomy. As harrowing as they are, both images point to some kind of release in a remarkable debut that promises much, however heart-rending the subject matter.

Elsewhere, in the new labyrinthine Pleasance UnderGrand space, we’re ushered into a pan-Iranian laboratory by the 30 Bird Company, who last visited Edinburgh in The Persian Revolution, a refreshingly complex take on Iranian. in Plastic things take an even more opaque turn, as director Mehrdad Seyf looks at a country which has somewhat surprisingly become the world’s capital of gender modification. So it is that on entering to the sight of women perched on vertiginous heels and dressed in white in the distance, the men and women in the audience are segregated before being led on a promenade through a living installation involving film and sound constructions. But first, the pickles.

Jars of the stuff line one of the rooms, on the wall of which a film of the actors is projected. We’ve already been given a loving description of how pickled onions are preserved by a man who then tells us he intends removing his own sexual organs. Inside, a female voice explains the meanings of her songs through a loud speaker, before a male voice tells stories that can never be repeated. Elsewhere, a woman has her breasts bound up in a manner that resembles foot-binding.

In some ways, Plastic is a more abstract sibling of Free Outgoing, the India-set play currently running at The Traverse and involving sexual indiscretions made public in a very private country. Because, coming from a white western standpoint, at first glance, you wonder what all the fuss is about. Here, after all, is a piece of work that takes its concerns very seriously, but which were surely dealt with in Britain in the post-punk, post-feminist, post-separatist wave of radical performance in the late 1970s. In America too, the culture wars of the 1980s took stuff like this as far as it could go. Didn’t it?

Put this into a 21st century Iranian context, however, where as recent as last year the country’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, denied homosexuality even existed in Iran, and you realise why Plastic matters. At a slender forty minutes duration, its not developed as fully as it might be, and even here there are too many longeurs between scenes, but it still goes some way to confronting a society where nothing, not even men and women, is quite as it seems.

Fear of flying is one of life’s more understandable phobias. And if anything was to dissuade the casual traveller from spreading their carbon footprint via cheap flights, it’s Charlie Victor Romeo, a piece of ‘documentary theatre’ from New York’s Collective: Unconscious ensemble. Its premise, to re-enact verbatim transcripts of recordings found in the leftover black box of a crashed aircraft, is simple. In delivery, following a standard demonstration of safety procedures to an uncharacteristically attentive audience, becomes part disaster movie and, for the audience, nestled tightly in the economy class of the Reid Concert Hall as things onstage veer towards the voyeurism of death porn as seen on late night TV, part nervous breakdown with it.

Over half a dozen amplified scenarios, ranging from an extended battle with equipment to a brief an scarily Hitchcockian attack by birds, the tension mounts, so you’re willing the cabin crew, here occupying a set that looks oddly like a disembodied plug socket, to land safely, even though you can already guess the painful inevitability of how each flight pans out. It’s an easy but sweatily effective trick, and one that’s already been used as a training demonstration for new aircraft crew. Getting back onto terra firma has never been such a relief.

Another perennial Fringe problem, particularly with younger dramatists, is how you tap into a mad-for-it world that’s already been spewed out with considerable aplomb on TV. Joel Horwood’s cheekily titled I Caught Crabs In Walberswick, produced by the Eastern Angles company, readily ‘fesses up in its own publicity material to potential comparisons with the devastatingly good Skins. Indeed, Horwood’s teen-dream rites of passage, involving a cross-class cocktail of drink, drugs, posh girls and the most messed up parents on the planet resembles something that Skins creator Brian Elsley himself might have had a crack at twenty years ago when a rookie on a Scottish arts Council trainee directors scheme.

Horwood, a Fringe veteran from his musical, Mikey The Pikey, his celebrity chef based Food and 2007’s Truckstop and Stoopid F***en Animals is a scabrously funny observer of East Anglian adolescents in all their cartoon glory. Here, unlikely lads Fitz and Wheeler dodge impending exams and sex-talk trauma while fishing for the aforementioned crabs (well, what else did you think it meant?), before falling in with Dani, a well-bred wild-child similarly on the run from a messed-up mother. Together they embark on a joyride of erotic possibility, self-knowledge and potential self-destruction that sees them leaving childhood behind in a blaze of trashed glory.

Lucy Kerbel’s riotous little production is framed by a pair of grown-up narrators who add to what amounts to a foul-mouthed youth club delight that flaunts its immaturity as well as its not so hidden depths. Performed by a fresh-faced cast with abandon, any resemblance to prime time far makes this all the more wicked for it.

The herald, August 2007


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