A brilliantly contemporary work on the addiction of endurance sport is the best of five solo shows, says Joyce McMillan
Equations For A Moving Body ****
Northern Stage at Summerhall (Venue 26)
The Road To Huntsville ***
Summerhall (Venue 26)
Bricking It ***
Underbelly Cowgate (Venue 61)
All The Things I Lied About ***
Roundabout @ Summerhall (Venue 26)
Tell Me Anything **
Summerhall (Venue 26)
The unstoppable rise of the solo show has been one of the most striking features of the Fringe in recent years; cynics are inclined to suggest that this is all a matter of economics, and reflects the relative cheapness of staging a show with just one performer.
Here are five shows, though, in which young writer/performers – four of them appearing alone, and one with her dad – demonstrate with varying degrees of success that something much more than an urge to save money is in play, in this avalanche of solo creation. What we’re seeing, in fact, is the steady emergence – often through the academic study of performance – of a kind of theatre which borrows much of its language from the visual arts, and therefore assumes that solo practice, or something close to it, is the norm. The result is a continuous dramatisation of the self that can range from brilliant, rich work, replete with social connections and resonances – Mark Thomas’s current Fringe show The Red Shed is a prime example – to the kind of tedious self-absorption that makes audiences feel as if they’ve been trapped on a journey with a companion who just won’t stop talking about his or her pretty ordinary first world problems.
Hannah Nicklin’s Equations For A Moving Body, for example – presented by Northern Stage at Summerhall – is an engaging and beautifully-shaped 85-minute monologue about Nicklin’s experience as a regular swimmer who decides to undertake an Ironman triathlon to mark her 30th birthday. The show begins with some shocking film of two utterly exhausted women trying to drag themselves to the finishing line of the marathon run that concludes an Ironman; and throughout, Nicklin deploys every kind of scientific insight, both physical and psychological, to try to understand what makes human beings set themselves such goals, and how the achievement of those goals then becomes such a vital part of the self.
What emerges is a brilliantly contemporary show, both in its insight into the role sport and fitness has come to play in some 21st century lives – offering a sense of autonomy and control not always available elsewhere – and of the intense online life that often supports these activities: the league tables, entry forms, and sudden snippets of news (in one case absolutely tragic) that appear on the laptop screen projected above the stage. It’s a show that’s likely to fascinate those who run, swim or cycle, in other words; but what it really lacks is the kind of long view that would begin to suggest what this intense culture of physical self-improvement might actually mean for society as a whole.
The Road To Huntsville, by contrast, is a show that can hardly avoid the wider political resonances of the theme that attracts its creator-performer, Stephanie Ridings. She becomes curious about the psychology of British women who fall in love with, and sometimes marry, prisoners facing the death penalty in the United States. The show, though, ends up strangely poised between analysis of this phenomenon, and an unexpectedly personal saga, as Stephanie herself abruptly falls for the temptation of a pen-friend relationship with a condemned man, and finds herself at the Texas execution centre in Huntsville on the day of his death, being treated as his grief-stricken girlfriend. In truth, the strongest narrative arc in the piece involves Stephanie’s all-too-ordinary relationship with her partner back home, expressed through laconic texts with cat pictures. Yet there’s plenty to think about here, particularly in relation to other Summerhall shows about men in prison, A Man Standing and Doubting Thomas; and Ridings is a lovely performer, brisk, down-to-earth, and passionate.
Elsewhere in the world of autobiographical solo performance, though, it can be hard to discern any real theme or focus behind the pattern of lightly-shaped memory and mildly inventive performance. Joanna Griffin’s Bricking It, at the Underbelly Cowgate, puts the writer-performer on stage with her dad, Pat, a 73-year-old builder. The idea is that they swap jobs and discuss the experience; but while Pat is a charmer who tells funny stories with some aplomb, Joanna seems so uninterested in the process of building a brick wall that she has to liven things up by painting some of her dad’s favourite cheesy life-lessons on the bricks. In the background, there’s something about bereavement, and the recent loss of their mum and wife, but there’s an aimless feel to this show.
Katie Bonna, at the Roundabout at Summerhall, is also a gorgeous performer, full of charisma; but in her latest piece All The Things I Lied About – framed as an imaginary TED talk about lying – she produces a deeply unsatisfying, over-fragmented mix of interesting questions about whether we’re entering a “post-truth” political era, reductive Radio 4 humour about how everyone is horrible and selfish really, modish meta-theatrical banter with the guy on the lighting desk, and and an increasingly dominant vein of fury about what a lying villain her adulterous father turned out to be.
As for David Ralfe’s Tell Me Anything, also at Summerhall – well, it starts promisingly, with Ralfe’s account of how he tried, as a teenager, to help his then girlfriend survive severe anorexia, nudging her like a friendly dolphin towards some kind of safety. As the show develops, though, the focus turns relentlessly towards himself, his angry struggle with his own helplessness, and his continuing emotional problems. It ends with a sequence about how he feels about being at the Fringe – the fear, the nerves – that has almost certainly been said by every one of the 15,000 performers in Edinburgh at this moment; or at least, by that ever-growing proportion of them who are appearing alone in the spotlight, and talking mainly about themselves.
Equations For A Moving Body until 27 August; today 11am. The Road To Huntsville until 28 August; today 8:45pm. Bricking It until 28 August; today 5:30pm. All The Things I Lied About until 28 August; tomorrow 4:40pm. Tell Me Anything until 28 August; today 5:45pm.