Fringe Diary: Fringe Firsts

Written for the London Theatre Blog, 12 August 2008

After spending the majority of my time in C Venues and the Underbelly – most of whose theatre spaces are fairly makeshift – stepping into the Traverse feels a bit like warping back to Theatreland. Unlike C, it’s a purpose-built theatre, and serves as a venue all year round, so its spaces are well-maintained and the box office and theatre bar are decidedly un-Fringey places to be. It feels refreshing at first – but also like I’m removing myself from the heart of the festival and stepping back towards the world of mainstream theatre.

Similarly, Finished With Engines is an outstanding piece of ’straight’ theatre which, along with most of the Traverse’s programme, is at odds with the ramshackle, low-budget, experimental kinds of plays I’ve found myself watching so far. A two-hander set on a nautical observations platform (and possible nuclear silo), it explores the changing face of local conflict and global peacekeeping. The play focused too much on the strained relationship between sailors Megan and Hemingway for my tastes; a lot of vital political issues sank under well-trodden observations that people in prolonged close proximity tend to get on each other’s nerves. But such is the strength of award-winning playwright Alan McKendrick’s blackly humorous dialogue that it is possible to enjoy the play purely as an extended dramatic duologue.

The first round of Fringe First Awards, presented by The Scotsman newspaper, have now been dished out. There’s a telling assumption amongst Fringe veterans that the Traverse will always scoop the lion’s share of Fringe Firsts, and predictably enough three out of this week’s five have gone to Deep Cut, New Electric Ballroom and Architecting, all at the Traverse. That makes the TEAM’s third Fringe First Award. The other two went to Stefan Golaszewski Speaks About A Girl He Once Loved and The Tailor of Inverness, both one-man shows.

Remember Fringe Diary Part 1? I tipped Architecting for success and their Fringe first proves me right – though anyone reading the press or listening to the gossip around town at the time could have predicted that. I also mentioned Mugensha, a Japanese theatre company and one of the first to be seen out flyering on the Mile. Their show, The Feast of the Ants, is at once a cautionary fable and an innovative experiment in overcoming the language barrier. The play is delivered in Japanese, with the action allowing simple interpretation of most lines and especially significant ones either translated in voiceover or displayed on umbrellas, placards, bits of broken set and, particularly memorable, embroidered into the lining of the lead actor’s kimono. Mugensha also employ various Noh and Kabuki techniques, so in terms of visuals and pace the play isn’t quite like anything else on at this year’s Fringe. Unfortunately, for all that it’s a long and not especially subtle piece of theatre that repeats its message (“don’t be a selfish idiot like all these characters”) ad nauseam.

Highlights of this weeks in brief include: Who Writes This Crap?, in which Joel Stickley and poet Luke Wright parody and lay into examples of everyday ‘crap writing’ (packaging, press releases, the book on which the show is based) but eventually decide rather toothlessly that churning out crap is what makes us human so it’s okay; and The Tiger Lillies’ Seven Deadly Sins, a punk cabaret fronted by a high-pitched man in skull make-up and narrated by a pierced and mohawked Mister Punch and his civil partner Jude.

I’ve also been recommended a lot of dance and physical theatre this week. 21:13 uses movement to break down the language barrier between its English and Italian characters. How It Ended explores ‘marriage in an era of uncompromising expectations’ and has been picking up five-star reviews in most of the dailies. Finally, I know nothing about The Factory except that it’s the one at the Zoo, not the one at the Pleasance Courtyard, and that the Canadian documentary-maker I met at Finished With Engines couldn’t recommend it highly enough.


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