Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre reviews: Alison Skilbeck’s Uncommon Ground | Nuclear Children | waiting for a train at the bus stop | Chatham House Rules | Before the Drugs Kick In
Alison Skilbeck’s Uncommon Ground ****
Assembly Rooms (Venue 20) until 27 August
There are many reasons to love the Fringe, and one is that, however many starry-eyed young folk are out there making their debut, there are also some enormously experienced actors who can make the whole business look effortless.
Alison Skilbeck’s new one-woman show can’t have been made without effort, but as she flits between characters with poise and precision, she sure makes it look that way.
Uncommon Ground is a lockdown play which offers glimpses into the lives of six very different people taking their daily walks on Clapham Common. There’s well-heeled Margot, out with the dog and her water bottle full of gin to escape being cooped up with her family. “Is it Tuesday, or is it next week?” she says, perfectly nailing the confusion of the period.
There’s Tilly, who has Alzheimer’s, and Maureen, who works at the hospice and speaks with a French accent despite coming from Nuneaton. There’s Fairy Draggle, otherwise known as Mrs Sandra Fowler, who took a redundancy package from her civil service job to fulfil her dream of becoming an actor and storyteller, Matty, the little boy she befriends, and Dougie, who talks to his favourite tree about his troubles.
While they often make us laugh, many are putting a brave face on their private griefs. They are compassionately written and brought to life by an skilled veteran of stage and screen.
While Uncommon Ground is a portrait of isolation, it also maps the odd little things which connect us. It’s a song of praise to trees and parks and nature, and to community and compassion, and it is one of the treats of this year’s Fringe.
Nuclear Children ***
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33) until 28 August
When an elderly woman collapses in front of her in the supermarket queue, Isla knows all is not well. University had been a welcome escape after her father’s death, away from her grieving mother and indomitable Scottish grandmother. She met a man she liked and even her potty, bird-obsessed flatmate seemed to be working out alright. But then she started seeing things.
Winner of the 2021 Platform Presents Playwright’s Prize, this one-person play, written and performed by poetry slam champion Ezra England, sounds, at first, like the kind of confessional solo show we’re used to seeing at the Fringe. In fact, it’s much more highly crafted. It’s a play about grief with a strong vein of comedy and a hefty dash of the absurd.
It’s a tough balancing act to pull off: on the one hand, the comedy tropes (the ditsy flatmate, the Glasgow granny), on the other a story of devastating grief. Isla is so frank and funny, so together it’s hard to believe, at times, that she’s falling apart. But England’s polished, inventive writing and accomplished performance surely mean that we will be seeing much more of both before too long.
waiting for a train at the bus stop ***
Summerhall (Venue 26) until 27 August
“What do you call it when the person you’re with doesn’t want you?” our protagonist Chili asks at the start of waiting for a train at the bus stop. She is cheerful, sardonic; a self-aware victim of the modern dating age. The next time she asks that question, she sounds very different.
Blending spoken word poetry with Zambian storytelling traditions, waiting for a train at the bus stopis a deeply personal insight into the mechanisms of a coercive relationship, and the contexts of neglect, loneliness, and misogyny that allow it to unravel.
It’s an impressively dense piece, sometimes to its own detriment (the titular train – supposedly a frame narrative – only features twice), but what waiting for a train at the bus stop lacks in cohesion it makes up for in sharp writing and fierce political determination.
There’s an intriguing quality to the way the play builds its own internal mythology, granular pop culture references and lyrical call-backs transforming jokes into inside jokes between Chili and her audience, crafting an unshakable sense of intimacy.
Anchored by a strikingly charming and vulnerable performance by the play’s only on-stage cast member Yaisa, waiting for a train at the bus stop speaks truth – fragile, imperilled, resolute – to overwhelming power.
Chatham House Rules ***
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33) until 28 August
When hospitality worker and ex-influencer Host is hired on at a tech conference attended by ex-UK PM ‘Pigfucker’, the wheels of a deranged revenge fantasy begin to spin.
Written and performed by an excellent Louis Rembges, Chatham House Rules is a chaotic ride through the heart of darkness enveloping Britain’s institutions, set to the endless scroll of a TikTok feed.
Bound by the ‘Chatham House rule’—wherein participants of an event are allowed to divulge what they’ve seen or heard, but without revealing identities—Host sums up his fellow workers and conference attendees into catty pseudonyms, while skilfully evoking the ultra-elite world that lies beyond the looking glass. Everyone is fair game, and Host gives no quarter; he’s laceratingly funny, both in and out of the Instagram captions.
But Chatham House Rules finds its true heft when it faces up to the grief at its core, and the reason for Host’s self-imposed online hiatus. There lies the anger that finds its only outlet on social media’s attention economy; the widening gap between the have and have-nots; the growing mutual scorn between the political class and those they’re meant to represent.
Though its plot and execution could be ever so slightly tighter and leaner, Chatham House Rules deftly taps into the brutal noise that is quickly taking over our lives, both online and offline.
Before the Drugs Kick In ***
theSpace @ Surgeons Hall (Venue 247) until 26 August
As carefully constructed and sensitively written as this absorbing new piece by New York playwright and comedian Mike Lemme is, it's hard to imagine it working so well without the skilful performance of fellow comedian Maria DeCotis.
A web of temporal and fictive realities, DeCotis is Lynn T. Walsh a 62-year-old woman in an insane asylum who narrates her story as the 28-year-old stand-up comedian she should have become if her life hadn't been derailed by avoidable tragedy.
Based on true events, this monologue carries the authentic reverberations of real trauma leavened by black humour and genuine sensitivity. It wears its influences plainly on its sleeve - Jerry Seinfeld and Christophen Nolan movies are both name-checked - but it uses its mixture of observational stand-up and non-linear narrative to create an original portrait of a fractured personality.
Walsh is a casualty of the pressures faced by stay-at-home mothers during the 80s and 90s. One simple bad decision derails the life and the career she could have had. Confined to an institution, her mind is still sharp - but often sedated. Lemme's script is necessarily complex but DeCotis makes for an effective - and sympathetic - guide.