If the Edinburgh Festival Fringe must start with a bang, there are few more graphic ways of doing it than with Spanish actress Isabelle Stoffel's solo adaptation of Toni Bentley's singular sexual memoir, the Surrender. In both the book and the play, Bentley is a woman in search of spiritual enlightenment who finds it through the physical extremes of anal sex. While such libertine excesses aren't anything which the likes of the Marquis de Sade's works fantasised about a couple of centuries back, the fact that Bentley made it flesh gives her story an extra edge. While Bentley's words lean towards the sort of counter-cultural confessionals of the 1960s, in Stoffel's hands, and indeed every other part of her body, it's not nearly as po-faced as it could be. While Stoffel's delivery is laced with an apposite sense of levity, theatrically, she either cavorts on a bed or behind a screen, places candles on a wooden shrine or else listens to her own audio diary of each liaison on a Dictaphone that plays one of her meticulously filed cassette tapes. As her character falls prey to jealousy and emotional self-destruction, the fact that she knows when to walk away suggests that she is in control in a handsomely realised if curiously old-fashioned sounding journey. Ruaraidh Murray scored a mini-hit in 2012 with his one-man show, Big Sean, Mikey and Me. This year he should do something similar with Bath Time, a follow-up solo piece which similarly pokes around the edges of Edinburgh's underbelly where a trio of likely lads on the make reside. As hapless Spike bursts out of a cardboard box wearing his mammy's dress before making his way to the sexual health clinic, one can be forgiven foe thinking this is gloriously low comic terrain. As Murray introduces us to Spike's pals Joe Joe and Billy, however, a complex tale of petty crime, even pettier rivalries and friendship turned sour in the most dangerous of ways gradually unravels. Murray may initially present his three characters as cartoon archetypes, but as each tells their story, it's clear they're anything but in a blistering piece of writing that's more akin to the sort of intertwined monologues favoured by contemporary Irish writers such as Mark O'Rowe. In director Tim Stark's production, peppered with a local-accented demotic, the twists and turns of Murray's play becomes, not just a post-Trainspotting view of Edinburgh, but, in its bucket-mouthed sense of pathos, post Limmy too. It's a bleak and brutal picture that Murray paints, but this exquisitely constructed little firecracker of a show us possessed with an energy and a common touch that makes it irresistible. In The Epicene Butcher and Other Stories For Consenting Adults, an archetypal Japanese schoolgirl blows bubbles in the corner with her pink-clad comrade in arms like they're at a Cos-play convention in Jemma Khan and Gwydian Beynan's twenty-first century pop cultural reinvention of the ancient art of Kamishiba, or paper theatre. Here, however, paper theatre becomes comic book strip cartoon renderings of contemporary iconography, from Manga to Super Mario by way of a brief biography of Nelson Mandela in a handful felt-tipped frames. While Khan in pink acts as narrator of the half a dozen yarns that form part of Assembly's South African season, her sulky accomplice scowls her silent way through each chalked-on introduction punctuated by some buzzsaw Japanese bubblegum punk music. As Super Mario is given Dungeons and Dragons style status, the effect of all this is a set of grown-up pop-art mythologies from a pair of geek girls who've clearly spent too many hours indoors in front of the computer inbetween occasional treks to the comic book store to make a refreshing piece of naughty fun that's as far removed from the heavyweight perceptions of South African theatre as you can get. Also part of the South African season is London Road, Sea Point, in which a Nigerian woman and her widowed Jewish neighbour are forced together after a burglary in their Cape Town apartment block. Wary at first, as disappointed exiles in search of a brave new world and with no men-folk in tow, Stella and Rosa slowly bond over the kitchen table. In London Road, Sea Point,. they share stories of their respective erotic adventures as their secret lives unfold. Before long, the pair are wiling away their days spying on their handsome neighbour with Rosa's binoculars, avoiding the drug dealers who Stella works for or, in Rosa's case, hoping in vain for a visit from her son in Australia inbetween waiting for the inevitable. Nicholas Spagnoletti's play goes beyond the elegiac tone that's suggested from the opening maudlin piano music. If the performances by Robyn Scott as Rosa and Ntombi Makhutshi as Stella in Lara Bye's production as are at times a tad too shrill, it's nevertheless a sad little close up of two lonely lives who find each other's friendship in a changing world which had previously deserted them. There's a perception of the Fringe by some that most of those performing in it don't know their arts from their elbow. Nowhere is this exemplified better than in The Veil, Lucy Hopkins' grand pastiche of every presumed Fringe cliché to have ever cavorted down the Royal Mile in skin-tight lycra and white face paint. It begins with a hunched figure, covered by what appears to be an all-consuming oversize security blanket slowly making their way through the audience like a cross between a Halloween ghost and an accused murderer being bundled from the back of a police van and into court. When Hopkins reveals herself with a flourish, it is to teach us about the value of 'art', or more significantly, perhaps, 'the artist' in the most archly pretentious, self-absorbed and narcissistic way imaginable. What follows is a quasi physical dialogue between assorted be-draped characters, all played by Hopkins, which every wannabe Marceau, Berkoff and Grotowski should be frog-marched to see before they disappear up their own fundament. As a well-observed and waggish one-liner, it's fine, but, as physically dexterous as it is, can't fully sustain itself over its fifty-five minute duration.
The Herald, August 5th 2013 ends