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Traverse Edinburgh Festival Fringe Theatre Reviews 2011

Man of Valour - 4 stars
The Golden Dragon – 3 stars
Wondrous Flitting - 4 stars
What Remains - 4 stars

The first moments of Man of Valour, Dublin's Corn Exchange Company's
near wordless piece of post-modern comic book mime that opens Traverse
Two's programme, make its down-at-heel everyman protagonist appear like
one more workaday suicide. By the end, however, hangdog office drone
Farrell Blinks has moved from Billy Liar-like fantasist trapped in a
Kafkaesque hell to become a real life, flesh and blood hero who's
conquered his demons beyond the computer games that fill up his
solitary leisure time. Wonders will never cease, he looks like he might
even get the girl. Or, talk to her, at least.

If such a narrative arc sounds straight out of Hollywood, as ever with
Corn Exchange, it's the way they tell it that lifts things into the
truly extraordinary. As conceived by writer Michael West with director
Annie Ryan and performer Paul Reid, this new work takes the trappings
of CGI-generated pulp fiction flicks and supernaturally-inspired teen
TV by way of Freud and Jekyll and Hyde to create a deep-set
psychological noir of inceasingly impressive style as well as
substance.

If the sound and vision by composer Denis Clohessy, video wizard Jack
Phelan and designer Aedin Cosgrove provide a crucial sensurround
framework for the piece, it is Reid's performance that is its heart.
Pasty-faced and be-suited, his solo turn is so much more than technique
and physical tics. Rather, Reid throws himself into things with an
emotional intensity that sees the little guy finally find himself anew.

Form is crucial too, to The Golden Dragon, Actors Touring Company's
latest extrapolation of contemporary German writer Roland
Schimmelpfening's increasingly fascinating canon. Five rolls of
ricepaper form the walls and floor to what is nominally a
Chinese/Thai/Vietnamese restaurant, but which, over the course of one
evening in incoming ATC artistic director Ramin Gray's inaugural
production, becomes a multi-cultural microcosm of an inner-city global
village.

It begins with a Chinese kitchen worker's tooth being pulled, a tooth
that, by the end of the night, will have been passed from mouth to
mouth and effectively travelled halfway round the world. Inbetween, two
off-duty air stewardesses get a mouthful, couples fall-out and
over-amorous insects get squashed. By having the five actors play
cross-gender and opposite their natural age range, however,
Schimmelpfening appears to be suggesting a glorious interconnectedness
of life's rich tapestry and an instant karma that gives genuine food
for thought. Such an approach lends an intriguing playfulness to such
material which at first looks the stuff of soap opera, but which slowly
but surely lures you in to a far stranger and much more interesting
place.

Inner-city ennui is even more pronounced in Wondrous Flitting, the
first original play by Edinburgh Royal Lyceum Theatre artistic director
Mark Thomson to see the light of day since A Madman Sings To The Moon.
Wondrous Flitting may be more expansive, but its concerns of seeking
salvation in a cruel world are similar.

It opens with an almighty crash, when a holy house with foundations in
thirteenth century Tuscany but which realigned itself in Loretto,
bursts through the walls of twenty-something Sam's house. With his Dad
trapped beneath it, Sam is shaken from his unemployed torper to embark
on a city-wide quest in search of something, if not himself. If this
sounds like a deceptively sit-com style beginning, what Sam finds in
this broken-down wilderness instead are eleven year olds who name and
shame him as a 'paedo', a wheelchair-bound grandfather who puts a
bitter faith in the BNP, and an on the edge dentist who takes communion
with his own blood while a latter-day Mary Magdalene washes away Sam's
sins.

It's an increasingly grim series of encounters that paint a bleak
portrait of life on our own doorstep, as if Voltaire's Candide had been
recast in a mirth-free episode of Shameless. Thomson's own production
for the Lyceum nevertheless ekes out a searing sense of righteous
empathy with a marginalised society that's too often fetishised without
ever being fully understood. With such sensitive and versatile actors
as Liam Brennan and Molly Innes changing hats for a role-call of human
detritus, there's even more understated power to the piece.

In the central role of Sam, Grant O' Rourke presents a bluff if
heartbreakingly bemused figure, who's attacked from all sides when he
only wants to help. Metaphysically inspired as he is, if he survives
the blast in a play that oddly recalls the super-realism of post 1968
German auteurs such as Fassbinder and Kroetz, that really will be a
miracle.

Finally, site-specific magicians Grid Iron take us off-site and into
the shadows of Edinburgh University Medical School's Anatomy Department
for What Remains, a dakly camp piece of musical grand guignol that's
part installation, part psycho-killer case study. At the heart of this
is composer David Paul Jones, who introduces us to his alter ego
Gilbert K Prendergast with a solo piano recital that flits from
sentimental syrup to modernist discordia and back again in an instant.
It's an interesting pointer to Gilbert's mind as we're led on a tour of
this maestro's inner sanctum with the amplifies and disembodied voice
of Gilbert himself as guide.

Slowly what emerges is a portrait of a piano teacher who demands
perfection from his students, but who is himself damaged to the point
of psychosis by his own experience. As the audience are divided between
rooms, the detritus of Gilbert's life, the human remains, if you like,
are laid out like specimens, so it becomes part interactive museum,
part asylum. The combined effect of all this in Ben Harrison's
production is part Dr Phibes, part Legend of Hell House and part The
5000 fingers of Dr T in a manner that recalls Central Hotel, NVA's
equally creepy promenade through the top floor of Glasgow's grandest establishment.

As Jones ducks in and out of view, at one point crooning an Anthony and
the Johnsons song from atop a stairwell while sporting a mask and white
robes, the show's grimly fiendish use of space throws light and shade
on some of the Med School's actual exhibits. It's a slight but
deliciously delivered affair, which, judging by the state of poor
Gilbert, might just make pushy parents think twice about sending their
own little prodigies out to tinkle the ivories.

The Herald, August 8th 2011

ends

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