Army at the Fringe reviews: Kevin Quantum: The Trick That Fooled | Tunnels | Dandelion | Duty / Tour | The Mind is the Frontline

Amid this year’s slimmed-down festival, the returning Army at the Fringe strand at East Claremont Street Drill Hall is one of the main producers of intriguing new theatre-based work. With The Trick That Fooled (****), one of two shows Kevin ‘Quantum’ McMahon is presenting on this year's Fringe (the other is Eyes Open | Eyes Shut at Gilded Balloon Teviot), the Edinburgh-based magician delivers a performance which at first bears little relevance to its military-flavoured surroundings.

Brigadier Ben Wrench, magician Kevin Quantum, and actor and comedian Lubna Kerr launch this year's Army at the Fringe programme..

Like the array of great minds McMahon invokes, however – including Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs and JK Rowling, all of whom have been fooled by the illusions from history which the Britain’s Got Talent 2020 semi-finalist performs here - we need to think in a different way to get to the heart of what's really going on.

Admittedly a bit rusty with the repartee at first, after a long break away, Quantum's execution of his craft is still as smooth as can be. Slickly fooling the individuals he invites on stage and the audience at large, his highlights include an unfathomable levitation trick, a stunning routine using photo cards in which everyone in the room participates, and a novel approach to social distancing where one woman appeared tricked via an image of her on television. If the show bears any point beyond sheer entertainment, it’s that in an era of fake news even the smartest can be fooled.

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Tunnels (***) is the new theatre piece by Further Theatre, written by and starring Oliver Yellop, who did a memorable job at last year’s virtual Army at the Fringe with I Am Gavrilo Princip. It’s a smart, evocative and largely very successful piece of work, in which Yellop and Lewis Brunijes are East German cousins who in 1968 attempt to dig their way out of East Berlin and towards freedom via the subway system of the city’s western enclave.

One wants freedom for himself and the woman he loves, the other is fleeing the terror of the Stasi prison he’s recently been released from. Nothing, as we might expect, is entirely as it seems, and the claustrophobia of both the tunnel and the pair’s wider lives is evoked through two strong performances, Benji Hooper’s evocative live score and Colin Ellwood’s tight and focused direction. Yet the very final act of the piece twists the tale’s logic out of control, and gives the impression that additional story might have been lopped off to fit a Fringe running time.

Edinburgh company Creative Electric’s Dandelion (****), on the other hand, is short but perfectly formed. Equipped with headphones and led into the private, tree-lined garden alongside the Drill Hall, the audience mills around until a young woman begins talking to them calmly, reassuringly. “You won't be pinged here,” she says. “There's no emails to answer or homework to complete.” Her name is Lisa, she says, as she physically strides into the space and introduces the 12-year-old girl in the sunshine yellow dungarees playing on the swing. This is her little sister, Dandelion.

Through illustrative mime and physical theatre in response to the actors’ own pre-recorded speech, and Lisa’s nervy, live on-mic interventions, the audience feels what life as a perpetually moving army child might be like. The themes are very relevant after the last 18 months, showing us innocent childhood love and solidarity in times of isolated upheaval, and they really strike home when the pair must part. Writer/director Heather Marshall has created a subtly ingenious piece of theatre, led by a strong performance from Roz McAndrew and a really outstanding one from young Amelia Tuck in the title role.

Also making use of audio technology is the pre-recorded walking piece Duty | Tour (**), which the single audience member downloads and listens to on their own device. Telling the story of a pair of young female friends who join the Army, from the first-person perspective of one of them, we’re invited to walk the streets around the Drill Hall and imagine this is where they both grew up, as she reminisces about youthful togetherness and the events which drove them apart.

Producers They Eat Culture have created a perfectly intriguing and well-produced audio drama in its own right, but the manner in which the walking element is presented – as an intervening commanding officer squawking radio directions as though we’re on a military manoeuvre – suffers from a lack of absolute clarity about which landmarks to look for and directions to take. Following the drama means the route is lost, and vice versa.

Finally, although it only ran for two packed days in the Fringe’s first week, choreographer Rosie Kay’s Zoom-assisted in-person and online discussion series The Mind is the Frontline (****)tapped into something of Kay’s association with the filmmaker Adam Curtis in the urgency and relevance of its subjects. Involving choreographers, theatremakers, psychologists and military specialists, she discussed the roles of art, surveillance, data and dystopianism in conflict, and the fusions of flesh and technology which might define the future battlefield.

Kevin Quantum: The Trick That Fooled, Tunnels and Duty | Tour all run until 22 August (not Mondays). Dandelion runs until 15 August. All shows are at East Claremont Street Drill Hall. See www.armyatthefringe.org for more information and tickets, for these and next week’s other upcoming shows.

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