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Subway / Game Theory / W.S. Graham: Out Of His Head - Edinburgh Fringe 2007

Traverse3@University Of Edinburgh Drill Hall
5 stars
Edinburgh is a very strange town outside of August. There isn’t so much of a mention of the festival in Vanishing Point’s brilliantly realised devised piece, set in a future Auld Reekie where the Leith of old has been razed and super-hospitals for rich people only built in their place. Smoking hasn’t just been banned indoors, but on what’s left of the streets and slums, policed by talking CCTV. Via a post James Kelman style interior monologue, we witness a prodigal’s return to a city he barely recognises, but where the natives are quietly revolting against this dystopian nightmare vision.

Theatrical magic doesn’t grow on trees, but if you’re looking to be enthralled, Subway is quite possibly the most exciting piece of theatre all year. Because, while Sandy Grierson’s out-front performance is electric enough in exchanges with Rosalind Sydney, who plays all the gnarly-faced grotesques he meets en route, setting its bleakly funny wanderings against a magnificent live soundtrack performed by a 7-piece Kosovan band lifts Matthew Lenton’s production into jaw-dropping, gob-smacking territory.

The band, though, whose keening mix of heart-breaking string-led laments and frenetic chases through the boy’s head, are woven into the action, so both the players and the music become part of the action. Lenton and his cast, with dramaturgy by Nicola McCartney, have pulled the stops out in what looks like the perfect answer to anyone who says that the Fringe is a trivial waste of time and irrelevant to Edinburgh residents.

There are moments in Scroggs’ dark voyage down Leith Walk that resemble Apocalypse Now, itself drawn from Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, so evocative is it of a world out of wack, with his old man as some cigarette hoarding Kurtz peering out at the horror. More significantly, perhaps, the quiet revolution the boy’s father has set in motion before being forced to bid for new lungs in the hospital lottery, recalls the Princes Street riots during the G8 summit a couple of years back.

But this is a rites of passage tale too, the sheer emotional power of which is a relentless and heart-rending jolt to the system. On one level, its advocacy of smoking yourself to death looks a tad reactionary. On a far greater level, however, this is a call to arms for every Edinburgh resident squeezed out of the perversion of urban regeneration the city’s high hid yins are currently in thrall to via the building site the city has become. It’s about the death of community, how the gloss of bright new buildings built on foundations of greed are put before people, and the power those people eventually rediscover through collective acts of free-will. It’s also a brilliant, all too human piece of artistry and craft.

Grierson is fast becoming one of the most exciting actors onstage, whose both down to-earth vulnerable but steeped in east European physicality. Sydney too is a versatile and fragile foil and equally dynamic.

Every tin-pot city councillor and empire-building numpty squatting in Holyrood should be dragged along to this. As should everyone else. You’ll never see festival city in the same light again.

Game Theory
Traverse Theatre
3 stars
Three sets of three people in three loosely related playlets form the basis of Ek Performance’s stark and serious meander round the houses of an un-named war zone where conflicts are altogether more intimate affairs. In the first, a trio of negotiators finally face up to each other round the table in some belated attempt to find accord. Like Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams in 21st century Ireland, every word and phrase is contested and dissected for any misleading meaning it may possess. No-one commits to anything, not even coffee. The second piece finds two brothers and a sister returning to the rubble that was their former home, while the third finds a man and the journalist who claimed he was a traitor to his country finally coming face to face.

For a piece of theatre to base itself on a mathematical construct which looks at human behaviour in situations of extreme conflict is an intellectual and technical conceit that looks, in Pamela Carter’s production, like a fascinating exercise in terms of concept and construction. How successful Carter and Selma Dimitrijevic’s script works as a piece of drama, however, isn’t quite so clear cut.

Because, while the understated simplicity of the dialogue is intermittently compelling, its attempts to tantalise via opaque set-ups could be done in half the time. The performances, however, particularly Meg Fraser in all female roles, stay faithful to the play’s super-realism, which, while not nearly as clever as it likes to think it is, is tense enough to sustain things to the end.

W.S. Graham: Out Of His Head
3 stars
The poetic sensibility is a curious beast. As Greenock born wordsmith W.S. Graham himself observed, poetry is “a mysterious and unsubstantial practise.” Kenneth Price’s biographical homage to this epitome of grim-faced Scottish letters rummages gently in the dirt of what made Graham tick through a series of loosely linked letters to friends across the years. As we move with him to a bare-bones ascetic existence in a caravan in Cornwall, which he shared with life partner Nessie Dunsmuir, Graham’s life-long struggle with poverty becomes an increasingly dour litany of a near obsessive faith to the purity of the word.

Price’s performance, however is charming, not least for the remarkable way his face appears to morph into Graham’s own increasingly weathered physiognomy before our very eyes. In what is clearly a labour of love, Price begins and ends his monologue wearing pyjamas to signal both Graham’s early morning fire and his late night decline. With a set littered with symbolic totems, from a battered type-writer to the tide-turning sand on his own doorstep, Graham’s passions, his friendships and above all his tight-lipped lyricism, come to life.

If at times one can’t help but be reminded of the grasping old soak of a Scotsman immortalised in Monty Python’s own literary works, its only because Graham body-swerved literary groupiedom for his art. Price has honoured his subject beautifully.

The Herald, August 2007



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