On the back wall of the theatre are a mass of jumbled fairy lights. Like the lives of people in shared spaces, they are messily, inseparably tangled.

Jess Murrain and Lucy Bairstow present a series of duos struggling with limited living conditions. An uptight landlady and an edgy lodger who talk at rather than to each other. Two perfectly presented lesbians whose facade cracks as they repeat the words of a scene with a different tone. A single girl, finally with a space of her own, who can’t sleep because of the urban noise.

The comedy goes some way to displaying the pressures of living with another, but the characters aren’t quite full, funny or clever enough to shatter stereotypes or produce belly laughs. By displaying straightforward stereotypes of millennials, Theatre with Legs do little to transcend those typical narratives.

The sketches don’t push hard enough at Murrain and Bairstow’s frustrations. The domestics simmer but rarely boil. Moments of song present potential for more original work, but the scenes aren’t given enough space to build. The devised scenes are neither cohesive nor absurdly scrambled enough to have an identity, resulting in a tangle much like the mass of fairy lights.

The addition of microphones, a sprinkling of glitter and nakedness demonstrate attempts at crossing into more innovative ground, but the half-hearted aesthetic experiments are more like a deposit than a solid month’s rent.

Original: Fest

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Siân Rowland’s three-hander boldly tries to unpick complex modern situations, but falls short, leaving underdeveloped characters struggling with subjects too big for them to carry.

From the tip of the pencil to the little lies told, everything in Gazing at a Distant Star is clean and white. Anonymous. Each of the characters is dealing with loss, of another and of their own identity. Arun (a gentle Harpal Hayer) blends into his cold-calling job, using the name Adam so as not to put people off by sounding too “ethnic”. Anna (an amicable Serin Ibrahim) reminisces about her sister’s potentially abusive partner. Karen (a broken Victoria Porter) sends a message to her missing son as she rides waves of guilt.

The play asks where responsibility lies, and who is to be blamed. What should they have done? Shouldn’t they have seen the signs? Couldn’t they have changed the end of these stories?

The exploration of these big questions lacks nuance. The meet-cutes are too easy, plot changes are dolloped heavily, and the twist that drives the second half of the play is easily guessed early on.

Rowland’s ideas are ambitious and her writing touches on delicate subjects worthy of discussion. The specific situation of Karen’s character—the mother of an attacker—is one unseen on most stages and increasingly relevant to our modern world, but the restricted form of the monologue Rowland provides her with limits her character to that of a victim. Combined with the other two stories, this script doesn’t carry enough weight to make an impact.

Original: Fest

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Jamie MacDowell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tom Thum’s voice is a symphony orchestra. With a bass low enough to shake the seats and a falsetto high enough that glass breaking is not unimaginable, his beatboxing releases a kaleidoscopic sound. His limbs move as he beatboxes, as if the sounds are tied in with muscle memory.

Singer-songwriter Jamie MacDowell plays on the audience’s awe of Thum. “Some of the show will be me,” he says with dry wit. And MacDowell does shine too, his chilled guitar and clean vocals making the music less about showing off, and more about constructing a story.

Demonstrating their loop pedal and sampling the audience’s cheers, this talented Australian duo guide us around their mixing desk. Finding common ground in 90s R&B, their different styles – Thum is more East Coast rap while MacDowell’s rhythmic sound lends itself to campfire pop-acoustic – blend beautifully.

In this hour-long show the remarkable pair perform a mixture of original songs and classic mash-ups. Both take turns leading with personal pieces, their solos more delicate than their duets.Thum dedicates a remix of Bill Withers’ ‘Grandma’s Hands’ to his own grandma, while MacDowell performs a beautiful solo for a friend struggling with coming out, referencing the current politics of hostility back home.

The Australian duo aren’t precious over their set or their skills. “It’s totally fine if you wanna film it, just don’t do anything weird with it,” Thum laughs. The pair joke, ad lib piss-takes and stop to start over when they make mistakes. A little bit of falling, a lot of getting up.

Event: EdFringe

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Delicately woven together, the stories of Annie (Charlie Sellers) and Sophie (Maureen Lennon) unravel like a salty lullaby. With their melancholic monologues underscored by live folk music—played by Mortiboy who sits centre stage, watching the action unfold—Hull-based company Bellow Theatre have created a story to tell in hushed tones round a campfire.

Study, work, marriage, babies. Annie and Sophie are desperate for more than the ordinary. As they both catch a current they can’t turn back on, the play reveals the pressures and expectations on young women.

Theirs are the stories of cruel men and crap jobs. Annie, thrown into a life she’s not ready for, tries to regain control through slight acts of rebellion and slow-burning self-destruction. Sophie, trapped by a possessive husband, resorts to other people’s stories. She tells bedtime tales in order to understand her own, recounting Arabian Nights with its myths of honour, horror and possession. When she dives into her own story, Sophie makes it clear the tales of girls trapped by kings don’t only belong in fairytales.

Everything in the production is approached with care. The direction is subtle, the drama creeping through in words rather than actions. At times it begs for a harder edge. Their voices are gentle as they build up the courage to speak out, with Mortiboy’s gentle strumming dappling below their words, never quite allowing the intensity to land. This dark, delicate production reminds us there is still a chance to change the end of every story. Watching it feels like being wrapped in a warm towel after jumping into the cold sea.

Original: Fest

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The only redeeming feature of this play is the strength of Lucy Roslyn’s legs. Keeping the pose of chimpanzee Goody for an hour, Roslyn bounces and clambers around the stage, doing all she can to make the audience laugh as they consider escaping their own cage of the theatre.

Jesse Rutherford struggles more with his role of Goody’s abusive owner Frances. With slack body language and a lack of variation in his voice, his impressions are tricky to tell apart, and neither humour nor dominance flows easily from him. Frances’s authority is never realised, creating a power dynamic that has no space to play in. He is an insecure owner who turns to violence every time he can’t control Goody, but the relationship between them is not strong enough to make us care.

Where the play really suffers is the logic of its language. At first Goody communicates through sign language. Sporadically, she speaks aloud, either to Frances or to announce subtext, clumsily thrown into the script like dung at an annoying zookeeper. Frances sometimes hears and sometimes doesn’t. It sometimes matters and sometimes doesn’t. The script falters and drags. The logical thread is dropped so many times I think it must have got tangled in Goody’s cage, and no one bothers to unpick it.

As Frances and Goody half-heartedly search for comfort in the damaged love of the other, this play is essentially a weakly-told story of a lonely man gaslighting a chimpanzee.

Original: Fest

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Tattered dolls and cuddly toys are scattered around the room, inanimate until they grab the hungry attention of double act Mireille and Mathieu. Performing in a mixture of English, French and garbled nonsense, these riotous performers are just big kids.

Their attention spins from one toy to the next, inventing stories that rip the objects from their original context. Babies box; Barbie and Ken get mixed up in a futuristic, Biblical fable; and mischievous rabbits play Knock-Down-Ginger.

Aside from a misplaced phallic joke, the childish delight the pair instill ripples across the audience. The speed with which they change story, power structure and character keeps the energy high throughout.

Mireille and Mathieu don’t hide their bodies like many puppeteers. They are as flexible, malleable and prone to manipulation as the toys they control.

The pair race to catch up with each other and make us laugh even more. Mireille turns the ironing board into a horse—entirely believably—until Mathieu gets distracted by a bin lid and the horse is discarded, its former use redundant. They communicate through their puppetry rather than directly in coversation, their domestics turning into childish tiffs. The duo aren’t afraid to be brutal with each other either, thumping and rolling their way across the stage.

Top-notch tech isn’t needed to transport the audience in Arm, only a leap of imagination. At the end of this unruly performance, it seems appropriate that the toys get a round of applause too.

Original: Fest

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When talking about war, it is often the numbers that are recited. How many thousands died here; how many hundreds were buried there; how many were tortured or raped or shot so close to your own home. But it is always the human stories that stick. It is the individual lives that wander round the mind and sit heavily in the corner of the brain.

Bosnians talk about the war daily. It is part of what makes the wound in this country so visceral. The land is divided, the politics are complex and the memory of war runs through its veins.

On our second day exploring conflict and peacebuilding in Prijedor, in the Republic of Srpska, we visited several war memorials and the site of a mass grave.

Unidentified bodies were piled on top of each other in mass graves, accounting for some part of the huge number of missing people from the war between 1992-1995. DNA tests are used to identify the corpses with samples taken from family members to search for matches. Gradually the science helps identify and reduce the numbers of the missing.

After the discovery of a mass grave in 2014, and the subsequent DNA tests, the number for Prijedor’s missing went down significantly. It is still estimated that there are hundreds more.

Sitting in a little spot of shade by the Kamicani graveyard, founder of Most Mira, Kemal Pervanic, told us a story of a father. This man’s son was taken during the 1992 siege on Prijedor. When asked for his blood sample to identify his son’s body, he refused.

This father—just because a child is taken away does not rid a father of his role—is fighting both an intensely personal and highly political battle.

If he were to provide a DNA sample to be tested, it may aid this national initiative to identify all of the war dead. It might nudge down the number of the missing from the town. One less uncertainty.

But doing so would mean for this father’s son to be taken from him a second time. It would be one statistic passed over to another—shifted from the number of missing to the number of dead. For a father who cannot bear the certainty of knowing whether his son is alive or not, I can imagine he would need the hope that comes from not knowing.

Wounds fade with time, but Prijedor is far from healed and this father’s pain is still raw. I wonder if giving his blood sample and learning the truth, no matter how painful, would provide a thin layer of protection for him, or whether it would rip the skin off indefinitely.

In Prijedor, everyone you talk to has personal experience of the war. Everyone has a story like this father. As a participant of the Project on Peacebuilding, we have the privilege of hearing the personal and the history, and standing on the site where that history took place.

I spent an eye-opening week exploring post-conflict politics in Bosnia with Most Mira. Original post here.

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A telecare system is a white plastic phone with a big red button. Often perched at the end of a bed or the arm of a chair, the phone can immediately connect someone in an emergency with a member of staff from a care team. The phones are designed to provide independence to older adults but for many, conversations on these telecare systems are their only point of contact with the outside world. “My gran used to ring them all the time,” says Louise Coulthard, “even though you’re only supposed to use it if you fall over or burn yourself. She just pressed it and rang for a chat.”

Edinburgh in August is frantic. Everyone is hungry, exhausted, and the streets almost sway with the weight of hungover students cloaked in rain and sweat, the shower in their too-full apartment having broken that morning. This hive of activity, so busy you almost get sick of pushing through bodies on the Mile, feels far removed from the image of someone sitting in solitude at home, pressing the emergency button of their phone just so that they can hear a friendly voice.

It often seems that the Fringe tends to have a focus on the young, with uproarious ideas celebrated and desperation oozing from keen, clever young things. So how do the two worlds merge? How does a piece that is so delicate, quiet and gentle, focusing on the fragility of older adults, navigate its way through the chaotic tangle of the Edinburgh Fringe?

This year, Theatre Ad Infinitum are bringing back their 2011 hit, Translunar Paradise, [Exeunt review here] a heartbreaking performance exploring an older man’s struggle to recover from his wife’s death. And numerous other shows are tackling the subject of old age at this year’s Festival, including three new plays: The GardenerDark Matter and Cockamamy. Each of these three explores a unique area of the ageing process, using different techniques to draw out the nuances of a less independent life.

In Dark Matter, Vertebra Theatre Company harness puppetry, visual imagery and microcinema to reconstruct meaning for retired astrophysicist Alfie. In Cockamamy, Coulthard uses her experience of caring for her grandma to create a bittersweet tale of love and loss. Cumbernauld Theatre’s The Gardener focuses on amateur gardener Fred, who has recently moved into a home after being unable to cope on his own following the death of his wife. Each play orbits around the feeling of isolation. Whether suffering from dementia or simply the baggage of old age, when it comes to the later stage of life The Gardener’s director Tony Cownie says, even if you are “surrounded by people who are good to you and kind to you, what you’ve lost is in the past. It is still a lonely experience.

As age decays body and mind, it becomes a race against time. In Dark Matter, director and co-writer Mayra Stergiou says, time is “a dictator and a companion”, doggedly pushing us through Alfie’s life to find what’s left of him. Time is not such a burden on The Gardener’s Frank. He is able to use his past, his skills and the things he loves. Although on medication, he is in much better health than the protagonists of our two other plays, both physically and mentally. Being in a better mental state allows him to use his past to his favour. A former teacher, he persuades the care staff to allow him to give a series of lectures on horticulture, the first of which we are invited to. “It’s nice to see him use the skills he used in his professional life in this environment,” Cownie says.

For Coulthard, time plays a different role. “Because gran kind of couldn’t really remember much of her past and wasn’t concerned for the future, it was always so present. Everything was just quite alive.” Coulthard’s play is heavily influenced by her own experience of caring for her grandmother. Just from talking to her on the phone, you can tell how much this piece means to her. Though her grandma was never that into theatre, living in the countryside where there weren’t a lot of touring shows, she was intrigued by Coulthard’s life as an actress. It will no doubt be an emotional and exhausting Fringe, but Coulthard is adamant that it is important to remember the funny moments too. “We did laugh a lot. Those moments of light get you through as a carer.” As suggested by the title, Cockamamy highlights the bemusing and hilarious situations dementia can lead to, drawing together the oppositions of pain and laughter.

Humour is also an important part of The Gardener, with a sense of fun a solid tool in Frank’s belt. “It’s just as much a part of life as tragedy or hurt is,” Cownie says.

I remember my grandma telling me that as she has gotten older, she is touched less and less. That realisation made me make a conscious effort to hold her hand and hug her more often. I tell Coulthard this and she recognises the feeling. She used it in her writing. Theatre is a form defined by its use of language, so the rejection of words is equally as suggestive as an acutely carved turn of phrase. “A lot of the time me and Mary [Rutherford, the actress playing Coulthard’s character’s grandma Alice],” she says, “we won’t be speaking a lot to each other, but we’ll be holding each other.”

Similarly, Dark Matter’s use of Bunraktu puppetry lends itself to a focus on movement rather than words. “It might be a cliche but with puppetry, we go against gravity,” Stergiou says. It makes every shrug or subtle look, every struggle, deliberate. Music serves as another form of communication in Dark Matter, with original music composed for the piece by Gregory Emfietzis. “Scientific research suggests that music is a great way to break through barriers of communication in dementia,” Stergiou says. “There are people that forgot their loved ones’ names but can’t forget a lyric from their favourite songs.”

It can be easy to forget the lives the elderly once lived. “There’s something about being hidden away in these homes,” Cownie says. By doing shows like these, he suggests, it’s uplifting to show all sides of a person, “to see that they still have spark, still have something to say, still have something to offer.” He pauses. “There’s a lot we can learn from them.”  Each of these shows is a song played, trying to reach back in time and grasp a bit more of the old life.

Old age and dementia will affect everyone at some point, whether first hand or through a relative. Cownie notes, “it is surprising that it is not a theme that more often takes centre stage.” According to the Alzheimer’s Society, one in six of us in this ageing population will develop dementia over the age of 80, and the disease is not discriminatory. It affects people of all race, class and gender.

“In the end,” Coulthard says, “my grandma kept wanting her mum.” Apparently common among dementia sufferers, the disease taps into a child’s first memory and maternal instinct. When performing the show, she often has audience members share this experience. Loneliness can have serious effects both on the carer and the sufferer and a demonstration of loneliness can help us feel less lonely. “It’s a shared experience,” Coulthard says. “A lot of people I’ve talked to say it’s really nice to know that you’re not alone.”

Original: Exeunt

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